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Understanding and Using Human Motivation to Increase Safety Performance

MotivationNobody gets hurt intentionally. People don’t knowingly decide that added productivity is worth personal injury.

So often an accident investigation stops short of the real root causes of accidents and are quickly attributed to employee complacency. Coworkers, supervisors and others reviewing events leading up to an injury struggle to understand why the injured worker made the choice to get hurt. 

In order to fully comprehend what happened, we need to understand the basic elements of human motivation. People take risks because they don’t understand the risk involved, they don’t know the proper procedure, or they don’t believe it could happen to them. Complete safety education can overcome this obstacle. Complete safety education conveys a message that carries influence and is presented in a manner that each person can relate to. To do so, communication techniques must be in line with the audience, and information needs to be specific, relevant, and usable.

The second challenge with human motivation is that people tend to figure out a “better way” to complete a task. In the event of an accident, investigators are quick to label the “better way” shortcut. This shortcut was likely intended to improve the process rather than cause problems. Often optimistic, creative individuals (the type we all want in our organizations) will anticipate the benefits of their new idea, and ignore or dismiss any potential negative consequences. This can lead them to perceive the odds of an injury to be so remote the risk becomes irrelevant. In order to change behaviors, risks need to be made personal. The methods to make it personal vary depending on the demographics of the audience.

Only when we fully understand the stimulus for individuals to take risks, can we develop effective initiatives toward avoiding risky behavior. Incentives for risk-taking need to be removed, and enthusiasm must be generated for open communication and positive safety performance. This goes beyond evaluation of injuries – by the time an injury happens, it is already too late.