Occupational Safety

Safety mindset: Putting safety front and center

How our thought processes can significantly influence a company’s safety culture

6 minutes08/09/2022

by Stefan Ganzke

If the Lost time injury frequency rate (LTIFR) in your company is stagnating – i.e. if your reported workplace accident figures have plateaued – and you would like to improve your safety culture, you need to turn to new strategies and methods in addition to technical, organizational and personnel-related (TOP) safety measures. Improved occupational safety demands a stronger focus on the people in your company and how they behave. 

Do you want to have a positive impact on occupational safety? If so, you need a basic understanding of behavioral analysis and how to change people’s behavior. To successfully transition to safe behaviors and thus achieve a sustained reduction in workplace accidents, your company’s safety culture needs a specific DNA. To describe this better, we’ve introduced the term “Safety Culture DNA”. It has three essential DNA strands:

  1. Safety mindset 
  2. Communication 
  3. Behavior-based safety    

This article deals with the first DNA strand, Safety Mindset, and the importance of mindsets in relation to occupational safety. Learn about the role mindsets play in developing a safety culture as described by the Bradley Curve, how to foster a safety culture, and how you can influence and promote more conducive mindsets to occupational safety.

Safety mindset

The way employees approach the topic of occupational safety – that is, their attitudes and mindset – has a considerable influence on a company’s safety culture. A person’s mindset on a given topic is part of their subconscious. In fact, around 90% of our thoughts and actions are subconscious. There is a direct link between the mindsets of people in a company and the number of workplace accidents, as illustrated by the Bradley Curve. This insight has been validated through more than two million surveys since 1995. 

The Bradley Curve

For example, if managers and employees in a company think “Accidents are normal” and “You can’t do anything about them”, they are likely to regard the topic of occupational safety as irrelevant. In this case, the motivation to practice safe ways of working must be extrinsic. By contrast, if managers and employees believe “Zero accidents is the goal”, then occupational safety will be regarded as highly relevant. In this case, there is intrinsic motivation.

Inhibitory and conducive mindsets

It is fundamentally possible to distinguish between inhibitory and conducive mindsets for occupational safety. Inhibitory mindsets might include “I don’t want to get caught” or “Nobody wants or needs occupational safety anyway”. On the other hand, conducive mindsets might include “Zero accidents is our expectation” or “We can prevent every accident by working together”.

The Bradley Curve depicts the four stages of safety culture. The first two developmental stages involve extrinsic motivation for employees. In the first stage, employees believe “Accidents just happen”. In the second phase, they are likely to believe “Zero accidents is unrealistic” and “I don’t want to be caught working in an unsafe manner”. The majority of workplace accidents occur in these first two developmental stages. Instead of feeling responsible for occupational safety here, employees always believe the responsibility lies with others. In the third and fourth developmental stages, however, they have intrinsic motivation. This is reflected in the mindsets in these two stages. At stage 3, employees and managers assume that achieving zero accidents is possible – and in the fourth stage, it becomes their goal. Companies with a safety culture in one of the last two developmental stages experience few or no workplace accidents, with their employees demonstrating a very high number of safe behaviors.

Evaluating safety culture with the Bradley Curve

What stage is your company’s safety culture at? What steps should you take to reduce your accident rate? This article sets out how the Bradley Curve can help you.

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Creation and transformation

If mindsets play such an essential role in occupational safety, one question in particular is decisive: How are mindsets created and how can we shape them for the better? 
Your employees’ mindsets are primarily created by their cultural, family, and social environment as well as their past experiences with occupational safety. To illustrate just how strong the influence of experiences can be, let’s look at an example:

Erwin is a production worker. The shift foreman tells him to manually pump a hazardous fluid out of an intermediate bulk container (IBC). When he gets to the IBC, Erwin realizes that he has forgotten his safety goggles. He briefly considers going back to his locker to fetch them – but ultimately decides to pump out the hazardous fluid without safety goggles, “just to get it done”. Fortunately, nothing happens to Erwin. The employees nearby see Erwin working without safety goggles but don’t say anything. This fictional situation leads to two experiences, both of which create inhibitory mindsets:

  • “Even without safety goggles, you won’t get anything in your eyes.”
  • “Unsafe behavior is accepted.”

The creation and transformation of mindsets can be illustrated using safety loops. It always begins with a person having a thought or impulse. In our example, Erwin considers whether to fetch his safety goggles or just empty the container quickly without them. In the second step, there is a physical reaction. In this case, it’s emptying the container without safety goggles. What Erwin took from this experience was that he was not injured and nobody spoke to him about his unsafe behavior. This helps to develop the mindset that working without safety goggles is OK. 

If you want to prevent inhibitory mindsets from developing and transform your employees’ thinking into more conducive mindsets, experience is the biggest lever you can pull. This doesn’t mean Erwin has to hurt himself to change his mindset. Instead, colleagues pointing out his unsafe behavior can be a formative experience. Alternatively, it could be a manager who sees this unsafe behavior and explains to him in detail why this presents a danger to Erwin and is not something the company wants to see. The important thing when providing this feedback is to explore the desirable, safe behavior and follow this up repeatedly with positive reinforcement. That could be a pat on the shoulder, a symbolic thumbs-up, or even a round of drinks on the manager.

Summary

If you want to overcome stagnating accident rates, you need to move beyond standard TOP safety measures and have a clear focus on the people involved. Safety mindset plays a key role on this. A person’s mindset towards occupational safety is more decisive than you might think. You can use the Bradley Curve to classify and gain a better understanding of the currentstate of your safety culture and common associated mindsets. In order to encourage positive mindsets and facilitate a transformation, you need to understand the safety loop of thought-reaction-experience-mindset and leverage the power of experience. New experiences create new mindsets and can take your company’s safety culture to the next level.

About the author

Stefan Ganzke is an expert in safety culture and communication on the topic of occupational safety. As Managing Partner of WandelWerker Consulting GmbH, he primarily helps safety engineers and occupational safety professionals to achieve lasting reductions in workplace accidents.

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