The Psychology Behind Safety

Nov. 24, 2015
How do you stop an industrial worker from bypassing the very mechanisms put in place to protect him? Install the safety systems, but also shape the mindset of the employees behind those systems.

At Automation World, we cover automation. But what happens when automation just isn’t enough? Worker and plant safety is one of those areas. Manufacturers can install the latest safety equipment, devices and networks; even provide realistic simulations for training. But when it comes right down to it, they still have to factor in those pesky carbon-based life forms hanging around between the machines.

For our latest survey, we set out to find out how unsafe readers think their co-workers are, and what they feel are the best ways to create safer environments.

As one responding machine builder put it, “For the last several decades, I've claimed that I can design and build or modify existing machines to make them completely idiot proof. However, one must always consider that every day and night there are myriad teams out there relentlessly and enthusiastically designing and building better idiots!”

Is it really that bad? Perhaps not. Many of our survey respondents stated emphatically that there is zero tolerance for unsafe behavior in their organizations. Still, less than 20 percent of our survey respondents think there isn’t a problem in their own manufacturing operations. Asked if they’ve seen coworkers doing something unsafe in the manufacturing environment, about 65 percent said yes, though not very often; another 16 percent said it happens all the time.

So what makes some people bypass concern for their own safety and the safety of those around them?

Complacency and ingrained behaviors certainly contribute. “It’s important to remember some of the human factors and human psychology involved,” says Steve Elliott, senior director of safety offer marketing, process automation, at Schneider Electric. “In some parts of the world, people do not want to lose face or show weakness. They might not know what questions to ask or, worst of all, their actions are ingrained so they just don’t know their actions could result in an unsafe condition.”

Keep it going

The No. 1 reason respondents gave for safety guidelines not being followed is to keep production going. “Getting the job done often clouds the decision-making process,” one respondent says.

Daniel Ghizoni, senior solutions engineer at B&R Industrial Automation, agrees. “When safeguards and safety procedures stand in the way of reaching and surpassing production targets, that is when unsafe behavior becomes more prevalent,” he says.

Operators and maintenance technicians will intentionally circumvent safety procedures or bypass safety technology. “When safety procedures are bypassed, the most common reason is a perception (real or not) that ‘fill in the blank’ would suffer if the job wasn’t completed quickly,” says Bob Gale, HSSE specialist, process systems and solutions, at Emerson Process Management. That’s true whether that blank is production, cost, etc.

Manufacturers need to view safety and productivity as goals to achieve together, rather than “safety first” after productivity, advises Luis Duran, product marketing manager for safety control technologies at ABB.

As a matter of fact, a productive machine is typically a safe machine. “If the safety system is designed to not be a productivity bottleneck, that will remove the incentives for people to bypass safety measures and regulations, and put themselves in a risky situation,” Ghizoni says.

According to studies from the Aberdeen Group, manufacturers performing in the upper 20 percent not only have less than half the injury rate of average performance (the next 50 percent of manufacturers), but also have 5-7 percent higher overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and 2-4 percent less unscheduled downtime.

“A safety system should only activate when there’s a hazardous situation present,” says Steve Ludwig, safety program manager at Rockwell Automation.

Keeping production going is particularly important as a safety measure in continuous processes, where a plant is most unsafe when it is down, Elliott comments. “Risks are especially high during startup, so the safety consequences of interrupting and halting operations is huge,” he says.

A matter of convenience

Another common—and related—reason for unsafe behaviors is that the safety procedures are too inconvenient.

“Procedures are at times inconvenient, and they are perceived that way when they are not understood—at least when their purpose is not clearly understood,” Duran says. “In order to maintain safety, it’s critical to make sure the procedures are practical and clear. Otherwise, people could ignore it and create a risk or hazard. Technology could enforce procedures, but it’s critical that safety is maintained.”

Unfortunately, such situations are not uncommon. “We’ve seen many instances of operators and maintenance technicians bypassing safety systems when the systems are designed in ways that make their jobs impractical, inconvenient or even impossible to perform,” Ludwig says. “Designing safety systems that are ergonomic and make an operator’s job easier and more efficient is critical to helping improve worker safety.”

Key to making safety procedures less inconvenient is designing in safety from the beginning of the machine design, Ghizoni notes. “It also allows the safeguards that are still needed to be better integrated to the operation of the machine—in essence, making them more practical,” he says. “There are many innovative safety monitoring functions that could be used to streamline maintenance and operator interaction with the machine.”

If equipment is not designed in a way that makes sense for production, unsafe behaviors can get built right into standard operating procedure. “We have seen companies issue maintenance personnel a ‘cheater key’ that allows them to bypass interlocked guarding,” Ludwig recalls. “This is a clear sign that something is fundamentally flawed when employees are formally trained on how to bypass safety systems. Sometimes these cheater keys are left on maintenance personnel keyrings, which means they are used regularly.”

Building a safety culture

There are other reasons people listed in the survey for not following safety guidelines—guidelines are too stringent, poor training, lack of managerial support, and the list goes on. But in companies with zero tolerance for these types of behaviors, there are no excuses.

So as an overarching framework, it really all comes down to the culture of the organization. And therein lies the crux of the matter. What do safe manufacturers do to create that culture of safety? Short of replacing all the “careless, lazy workers” with robots, as one survey respondent suggests, what’s the best route to safety?

“When it comes to safety, compliance and regulations are certainly important,” says Mike Porter, director of global EHS for tire manufacturer Goodyear, a recipient of a Manufacturing Safety Excellence Award from Rockwell Automation. “But in order to reach our target of zero incidents and injuries, we believe it is critical for our associates to make safety a personal value in their lives.”

More than 63 percent of respondents say their manufacturing organization has established a strong safety culture among its workers, and another 30 percent say they’re working on it. But what does it even mean to have a strong safety culture?

Almost three-quarters of respondents say that training is one of the most important factors in establishing that culture. Also important (each of them garnering a check from more than 50 percent of the respondents) are defining safety responsibilities, enforcing accountability, and leadership buy-in.

“Organizations must make it clear what the priorities are,” Duran says. Unsafe behavior can result if the priorities are not set, and people are led to believe that safety is not as important as other metrics, such as productivity, he adds.

“Corporations that appear to have more success in establishing a safer environment in their plants take a holistic approach, incorporating safety into the company culture,” Ghizoni says. “The directive/initiative should come from the top, but it still requires buy-in from every level in the company.”

“It is necessary that management set the tone from the top—that safety is a core value and cannot be circumvented,” Gale says. “That message must be clear through each layer of management.”

Above all, companies that exemplify safe cultures do so only with safety as a core value. Manufacturers Clorox and Goodyear, for example, both recipients of this year’s Manufacturing Safety Excellence Awards from Rockwell Automation (see "Awards Honor Safety Leaders"), have long been leaders in safety. And they have both adopted safety as a value as opposed to a priority, Ludwig says.

“Safety became part of our global company culture when we labeled it a core value, instead of just a priority,” says Jeff Deel, electrical instrumentation and controls engineering manager at Clorox. “Priorities can change over time, but our values remain constant.”

A “safety culture” needs to be not only something embodied by a company, but an individual as well, no matter what organization or industry they are in, Elliott asserts. “The phrase ‘safety culture’ is frequently overused because incidents continue to happen. Why? Because it is about behavior, especially at the plant face, where the work is undertaken,” he says. “Talking about culture is nice when sitting in an office, but what is important is the behavior of the person doing the work in the field.”

The safety supplier’s role

Automation suppliers are heavily involved not only in supplying safety systems, but also helping their customers establish safer cultures. In addition to providing safety classes in many cases, they help manufacturers build the awareness that creates safer practices among workers.

Emerson, for example, not only teaches safety in its training courses, it gets deeper into the thinking associated with its safety equipment. “We offer safety training modules that address both the reason behind safety instrumented systems, along with the basics of how we decide what to use in a safety system design and why,” Gale says.

“Outside of products and automation technology, ABB is very active in creating awareness and development competence,” Duran says, noting ABB’s involvement in assisting users and assessing risks. “It’s a human activity and driven by understanding the users and the industries in which they are active.”

Rockwell Automation has a tool available to help manufacturers assess their safety levels. “Rockwell Automation has a deep understanding of safety best practices, and has developed the free Safety Maturity Index assessment tool to help manufacturers assess their overall safety programs—beyond just the use of automation technology—to ensure that safety is rooted as a core value within their organization rather than just a priority that can shift with other priorities,” Ludwig says.

Within its process automation business, Schneider Electric has put more focus on specific roles people have in the plant—whether operator, maintenance technician or manager, Elliott says. “By helping these different roles understand how to use the technology they have in place at both the control and process-connected side, we can make their job safer, easier, more efficient and more effective.”

About the Author

Aaron Hand | Editor-in-Chief, ProFood World

Aaron Hand has three decades of experience in B-to-B publishing with a particular focus on technology. He has been with PMMI Media Group since 2013, much of that time as Executive Editor for Automation World, where he focused on continuous process industries. Prior to joining ProFood World full time in late 2020, Aaron worked as Editor at Large for PMMI Media Group, reporting for all publications on a wide variety of industry developments, including advancements in packaging for consumer products and pharmaceuticals, food and beverage processing, and industrial automation. He took over as Editor-in-Chief of ProFood World in 2021. Aaron holds a B.A. in Journalism from Indiana University and an M.S. in Journalism from the University of Illinois.

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