Why people behave unsafely

Why people behave unsafely

We aim to keep this book* light and useful, so we’re trying to avoid going down the mine on the psychology of risk-taking here. And we’re not even going to try to explain why Andrew freedives with Great White Sharks and leaps off the top of huge mountains. For now, let’s concentrate on two things: what we do individually and what we do as a result of what an organisation does.

A man falls out of a big ocean-going liner. He’s quickly thrown a life ring but pushes it away shouting “God will save me”. Soon, a smaller boat comes alongside and the crew tries to pull him onboard, but the chap waves them away too with the same “God will save me”. The crew moves on and radios the coastguard. A little while later a lifeboat is launched but, again, he refuses to let them pull him on board shouting once more “God will save me”.

The man drowns. Presently he meets God and rather upset says “But I had belief! Why did you let me drown?” God responds, “I sent you a lifebuoy and two different boats … what more did you want?!”

This joke is fully in accord with the key messages we’ve covered so far and we hope that it doesn’t offend anyone religious or secular, that’s not our intention.

But since it’s an area fraught with potential controversy can we just say that anyone who makes no effort to be Safety Savvy, because they feel that all that happens to them is due to a Higher Force, is likely to find out sooner than most other folks whether or not they’re in the right.

There are some individual causes to risk too. These can include being easily distracted, being impetuous, and being highly imaginative. Such are life’s challenges!

Here’s a case in point: halfway through creating his masterpiece at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, the genius that was Antoni Gaudi stared up at the roof of his magnificent cathedral under construction, stepped backwards to get a better look, and went straight under a tram. True story.


While there’s not much you can do about your personality, developing good habits –  even those that don’t come naturally – really helps. For example, checklists can help those low in detail awareness, counting to 10 helps the naturally impetuous, and so on. You probably already know what helps you.


An average, fit, healthy, and well-rested person can concentrate on a task for about 55 minutes in each hour, maximum. Several studies report it can be even less.

This means that for a large organisation, with say 20 000 employees worldwide, that’s 16 000 hours every week of “away with the fairies” time, minimum.

This is the one main reason why telling people to “take care at all times” simply can’t work. We need to get into the habit of tidying up poor housekeeping and working safely when people are bright and alert, so that the hazard isn’t there when we come back around the corner ten minutes later all zoned out. But more than that, sometimes the only thing that can save you when you’re zoned out is a good habit.


A more systemic cause is a feeling of fatalism caused by the direct environment: by the organisation and its culture.


We have an exercise where we give two teams some anagrams to solve. One set of anagrams is difficult but possible to solve, the other one is just impossible. The clock starts ticking.

The team with the difficult anagrams usually succeeds through the power of teamwork. The other team obviously always fails.

Then we repeat the exercise but this time we give both teams difficult (though possible to solve) anagrams. The first team succeeds again, but usually the second team gives up without really trying. That team has learned to become helpless in less than 20 minutes. So, imagine what an organisation can do over a period of 30 years.

If you recognise this, it could be you (and there are a lot of us out there!). You’ll find that usually you don’t speak up and, instead, have got into the habit of “just getting on with it as best you can”. This “learned helplessness” could then apply to any of the following organisational causes: the design of your job, your contract, your colleagues, work deadlines, or your boss.

Let’s start by looking at how the tasks you do are designed. Try this: stand up from your chair, balance on your left leg and draw a clockwise circle with your right leg. Stop. Point in front of you with your right hand and draw a figure of six from the top down. Unless you’ve had a few drinks, both should be easy. Now try doing the two things simultaneously … trickier? Keep trying, and see how long it takes before you give up. Frustrated? Yep, of course, it’s tricky!

But hang on a second. Let’s try them both at the same time again, but this time start drawing your number six from the middle, going around the bottom and then up. It should be much easier,  because this motion is now complementary to the movement of your leg, rather than contradictory.

Let’s put this fun exercise into perspective. If you have a job that is difficult to perform safely because it’s designed like your first attempt at the simultaneous leg rotation and finger-drawing, please say something quickly before someone gets hurt. If you have said it before and someone ignored it or filed it in the back of a filing cabinet, say it again. And again. And again. And again. Persist!

If you are still waiting for training on how to do your job safely – or your training was given ad hoc by existing employees who clearly have “their own way of doing things” – then, again, please say something quickly before someone gets hurt.

Right now, in workplaces around the world, there are plenty of people in these “difficult-to-do” situations, but just because it’s typical or usual doesn’t make them any safer.

Sometimes it’s not just one-off events that can’t be done safely. A huge problem may arise because of the way the job was set up from the start. Here are two examples close to our hearts:


We had clients who bought a waste disposal company in order to diversify their interests. A few weeks in, they were reviewing the existing contracts with local governments and councils, and realised, “we just can’t do this safely”. Since they meant it when they said, “if we can’t do it safely, we aren’t doing it at all”, they promptly sold the new company. Excellent integrity from them but not much use to you if you happen to work for the waste disposal company in question.


Another of our clients is a major shipyard in the UK. Commercially competitive and renowned for its impeccable quality, if you fancy a gigantic steel-hulled ocean cruiser replete with a helipad, submarine dock and a couple of massive gun turrets, this is where you need to go. One day the CEO came out of a heavy-hitting session feeling more than a little aggrieved and announced: “We should never have agreed to build these ships this way.” Our consultant replied: “Well, maybe not, but then again someone was going to and this area needs the work … so let’s talk about how we manage it from here.”

If you find yourself in a situation like one of these (and you don’t have one of our guys by your side) then you have two choices: you can change your career, or if that isn’t something you can do easily, or want to do, then please read Safety Savvy carefully … twice.


From around the time you start secondary school, the people who influence you most are not your parents, teachers, or even so-called “role models” in the media, but your peers. This continues from your school days into your work.

For example, imagine (or perhaps just remember) a detailed induction or training course for a new job, followed by the first day out in the van or on site with the “old hands”. Do the two experiences barely overlap at all? If that disconnect is evident, can you imagine that by the end of the first week the new start has been influenced mostly or entirely by the field experience? Of course you can.

If this has happened to you and you didn’t follow the old hands (who presumably found your adherence to the rules amusing) then you’re a genuinely exceptional person. The trouble with genuinely exceptional people is that there aren’t many of them. The truth is that most people would rather cut a corner or two and “fit in” (even if there’s a health and safety risk) than risk a group of old hands glancing over and smirking at them.

The bad news is that this peer power is so strong we’re not going to embarrass ourselves by suggesting you just need to resist it … we’ll simply say that though the old hands might well have become used to a certain level of risk or might be working in a macho “we laugh in the face of danger” culture, it doesn’t reduce the risk.


Almost everyone knows about the “rude Nike” rule (or “JFDI” as we’ve heard it referred to) and most, if not all of us, have been on the receiving end of this at some point in our lives. Usually, though, problems are far more subtle than some big aggressive foreman demanding: “You stick your head in that furnace right now or you get your marching orders.”

There’s an expression: “You can have it quickly, you can have it cheaply, you can have it top quality … pick any two”, and this often applies to the contracts we sign and the tasks we set up. Something has to give and often it’s safety.

When airport staff “work to rule” around safety regulations, it’s utter chaos; an announcement of a work to rule on the radio as you drive to the  airport for a well-deserved break in the sun will always fill you with dread!

Have you ever seen a forklift truck driver in the middle of a busy shift stop dead and apply the handbrake before engaging with a load, as they did on their test? There’s still a behaviour distinction to be made between the conscientious driver who commences a smooth lift of the forks no more than a couple of pallets out – putting the onus almost entirely on some fool trying to nip through – and the driver who hammers around the yard with their forks raised willy-nilly.

Safety, like politics, is often the art of the possible. Just because you find yourself in a genuinely difficult or even impossible “pick any two from three” situation does not make it any safer.

No one understands better than you what’s happening and why, so if it’s not right, say something! Ideally this something will be a bit of astute analysis followed by a sensible and practical solution or two … not just: “This is crap … and you’re an idiot.”

You’re still upset because they didn’t listen last time? Say it again, anyway! Later in the series we will delve deeper into how to deal with challenging leadership and why you should always speak up.

* This series consists of edited extracts from Professor Andrew Sharman’s and Dr Tim Marsh’s book Safety Savvy. The third chapter has been split into two parts, and the first piece is included in this issue.

Published by

Andrew Sharman

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman is managing partner of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. He’s a chartered member of Saiosh; immediate past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership & Management.
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