Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Q&A: Keeping Your Workers Safe

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

Our company has worked long and hard to improve workplace safety and we’ve made some great strides. I have good employees that work for me and I’m sure none of them come to work with the thought that they will have an accident that day, but unfortunately it sometimes happens. Why would employees continue to take risks or shortcuts that lead to accidents?

What Can Be Done

A Dear What,

I congratulate you and your company on your success. Recently in the U.S., many of the most obvious workplace threats have been reduced or eliminated, making American workers far safer.

However, in 2007 more than 5,600 people were killed on the job and more than 4 million were injured.¹ In addition to this tragic human toll, these injuries cost firms more than $48.6 billion.² Clearly, there is much more that needs to be done.

Most of the gains in workplace safety can be attributed to improvements in equipment, policies, systems, and training. However, the issues left to address are the informal, cultural challenges.

Here at VitalSmarts, we conducted interviews and surveys among more than 1,500 employees from more than 20 firms. Our research revealed that the ugly secret behind most workplace injuries is that someone is aware of the threat well in advance, but is either unwilling or unable to speak up.

Specifically, we uncovered five crucial conversations that exist in most organizations that are politically incorrect or uncomfortable to surface. Ninety-three percent of employees say their workgroup is currently at risk from one or more of these five “accidents waiting to happen.” In fact, nearly half are aware of an injury or death caused by these workplace dangers.

The five crucial conversations of a safety culture are:

1. Get It Done. These are unsafe practices justified by tight timelines. According to the results, 78 percent of respondents see their coworkers take unsafe shortcuts. These common and risky shortcuts are undiscussable for 75 percent of the workforce.

2. Undiscussable Incompetence. These are unsafe practices that stem from skill deficits that can’t be discussed. Sixty-five percent of respondents see their coworkers create unsafe conditions due to incompetence, and 74 percent of workers say safety risks sustained by incompetence are undiscussable.

3. Just This Once. These are unsafe practices justified as exceptions to the rule. Fifty-five percent of respondents see their coworkers make unsafe exceptions. Only one in four speak up and share their real concerns with the person who is putting safety at risk.

4. This Is Overboard. These are unsafe practices that bypass precautions already considered excessive. The majority of respondents—66 percent—see their coworkers violate safety precautions they’ve discounted. Almost three out of four either say nothing or fall short of speaking up candidly to share their real concerns.

5. Are You a Team Player? These are unsafe practices that are justified for the good of the team, company, or customer. Sixty-three percent of respondents see their coworkers violate safety precautions for this cause. Only 28 percent say they speak up and share their concerns with the person.

The missing ingredient in a safety culture is the willingness and ability to effectively hold those who are engaging in unsafe behavior and practices accountable.

In order to create a culture of safety, everyone must have the skills to hold others accountable. These are the skills we train in Crucial Accountability workshops. The other essential component is to use the Six Sources of Influence to motivate and enable the team members to be accountable.

I witnessed a dramatically successful strategy work for a team on an oil rig working to reduce accidents and injuries and a team at a hospital improving patient safety. They both implemented a 200 percent accountability initiative.

After being trained in Crucial Accountability skills, as part of an Influencer plan, the workers agreed that they were 100 percent accountable to abide by the safety protocols. They also committed to be 100 percent accountable to speak up when they saw someone else violating safe practices. Each signed a “200 percent accountability” poster and gave others permission to confront them if there was any question about their own compliance. With amazing speed, workers reported a change in their culture and an improvement in the vital behaviors that lead to a safer workplace for workers and patients.

Accountability is the implicit assumption that underlies every safety program. Yet as our research shows, this assumption is more fiction than fact. Consequently, accountability is the critical weakness of most approaches to safety. If people don’t hold each other accountable for acting on observed threats, then more training to help them recognize threats will be of limited value. Silence, not blindness, is the problem.

This research also points to an exceptionally high-leverage strategy for improving workplace safety. If leaders focus on the five undiscussables and transform them from undiscussables into approachable accountability conversations, they can expect dramatic improvements in workplace safety.

All the best in your worthy effort to keep your people safe.


¹Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, July 2009.

²”2008 Workplace Safety Index,” Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 2008.

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

5 thoughts on “Q&A: Keeping Your Workers Safe”

  1. Brian Taylor

    Very good article, Ron. The results of an accident, or carelessness, can be serious and often permanent. It’s too late once it’s happened. Prevention is the only effective option and speaking up is the way to achieve that. That 5 point charter is a good way to make it easier for people to say something; that and the verbal skills to actually do it effectively.

  2. Mike

    The assumption is that workplace risks are the result of the ‘bad apple’ phenomenon: workers who won’t challenge unsafe practices. This completely ignores the common problem of the ‘bad apple crate’. – the employment culture fed by Directors who have successfully lobbied for the de-regulation of their industries (both in terms of customer safety and worker safety). Large companies like poultry, mining, chemicals, and fertilizer producers come readily to mind as the disasters that occur in those sectors are high profile. If leadership has anything to do with promoting a culture of safety then where are our leaders? In the back pocket of the regulators?

  3. Peter Eastman, SPHR

    I have had a number of very interesting conversations over the years with a guy, who runs a behavioral safety training company, about ways to motivate employees and change the expectations that management is communicating – both officially and unofficially. In my work as a aggressive behavior prevention trainer, I saw many situations where the official message from the organization flew in the face of the actual manager behaviors.

  4. Bret Clikeman

    I have over 30 years of working in manufacturing. I now work for a company that has a truly different approach to safety and has been wildly successful. I transitioned to this company almost 2 years ago. We have an injury rate similar to many office job companies even though we are a 500 employee heavy industrial shop (1.4) and have held this range for years. If there is a model of success this is it.
    1. They make the employees understand who really pays the price for injury – THEM ( it is not threatening it appeals to self-preservation / their families’ security).
    2. Make them responsible for identifying safety issues and helping them fix the problems (they have investment in the fixing).
    3. EVERYONE does morning exercises.
    Having been around many shops this seemed too simple and I think that is why it works. I have seen the rules and signs and detail training and cajoling and threatening insurance cost and threatening termination and…………………. And never seen this kind of success.

  5. Graybar ESP Blog | Construction Safety & Safety SolutionsEnergy Efficiency, Safety and Productivity Products

    […] job is to wrangle everyone up to sign a “200% accountability poster.” I found an interesting blog post on job-site safety by Crucial Skills that used 200% accountability to reduce injuries and accidents […]

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