A few words could have saved someone’s life or prevented an environmental disaster, we think to ourselves. But hindsight is, as psychologists have told us for decades, biased by our knowledge of subsequent events.1 Moreover, we know entirely too many good, capable people in oilfield services, drilling, manufacturing and transportation companies (to name a few examples) to believe that industrial organizations are overrun with heartless individuals. This gave rise to some pressing questions, which led us to conduct a large-scale study of safety interventions in the workplace.

First, we wanted to know how frequently employees intervene in the unsafe actions and conditions that they observe. When they see something, do they say something, and if so, what happens?

We then wanted to find out why employees sometimes do not speak up or do so ineffectively. These are critical questions for anyone who believes, as we do, that human interaction is a vital part of an effective safety system; humans are the most adaptive and reactive line of defense against unwanted events. If we better understand why employees do not speak up when they see something unsafe, and why they sometimes fail when they do speak up, we will be in a position to improve both the frequency and effectiveness of employees’ direct interventions in unsafe operations.

Over the course of 2010, we surveyed more than 2,600 employees across industries, in 14 countries and 10 languages. The survey was conducted online with clear response-anonymity, and it sampled a representative cross-section of employees in all of the participating companies.

Consequences of Employees’ Silence

What we learned upon completing the study is that employees directly intervene in only about two of five unsafe actions and conditions (39 percent) that they observe in the workplace. In other words, the frequency of interventions is low. The obvious concern is that a significant number of unsafe operations that could be stopped are not, which increases the likelihood of incidents and injuries2; but this statistic is troubling for a less obvious reason: its cultural implication.

There is considerable research into the impact of organizational culture on employees’ workplace behavior. In fact, the influence of culture on safe and unsafe employee behavior is of such concern that regulatory bodies, like OSHA in the United States and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the U.K., have strongly encouraged organizations to foster “positive safety cultures” as part their overall safety management programs.

Employees are inclined to behave in a way that they perceive to be congruent (consistent) with the social values and expectations, or “norms,” that constitute their organization’s culture. These behavioral norms largely are established through social interaction and communication, and in particular through the ways that managers and supervisors instruct, reward and allocate their attention around employees.3 When supervisors and opinion leaders in organizations infrequently or inconsistently address unsafe behavior, it leads employees to believe that formal safety standards are not highly valued and employees are not genuinely expected to adhere to them. In short, the low frequency of safety interventions in the workplace contributes to a culture in which employees are not positively influenced to work safely.

These two implications – (1) that a significant number of unsafe operations are not being stopped, and (2) that safety culture is diminished – compound to create a problematic state of affairs. Employees are more likely to act unsafely in organizations with diminished safety cultures, yet their unsafe behavior is less likely to be stopped in those organizations.

Causes of Employees’ Silence

The low frequency of direct safety interventions is a clear problem, and the first step in resolving the problem is to understand why employees do not speak up. Importantly, 97 percent of respondents said that their company has a policy allowing them to stop work when they see something unsafe. Nearly all employees formally are encouraged to intervene in the unsafe operations that they observe, yet they actually intervene less than half of the time. This suggests that there is something else keeping employees quiet.

The question that we posed to more than 2,600 employees was, “When you see someone doing something that is unsafe and choose not to intervene in what they are doing, what is usually the reason?” The answers to this question might surprise some readers. Respondents did not say that their supervisors discouraged them from stopping work, or that it is not their responsibility to do so. Rather, in a notably different vein, the primary reasons appear to stem from employees’ unsuccessful attempts in the past to stop and redirect unsafe operations.

A quarter of respondents (24.6 percent) said that they choose not to intervene because the other person would become defensive or angry. It turns out that this is not an unwarranted concern, as the study also showed that employees react defensively in one out of every four interventions (27 percent) and angrily in one out of every six interventions (16 percent). The implication is that about a quarter of employees choose not to intervene because, at some point in the past, they did intervene and the other person became defensive or angry. Interestingly, respondents overwhelmingly indicated that they would welcome another employee’s intervention in their own unsafe behavior, which suggests that the prevalence of defensive and angry reactions has something to do with the manner in which interventions transpire.

A large number of survey respondents gave a second reason for not speaking up when they see something unsafe. A fifth of respondents (19.8 percent) said that they do not intervene because it would not make a difference if they did. Again, these respondents appear to have good reason to believe that intervening would not make a difference. The study showed that employees do not stop their unsafe behavior one out of every five times (20.7 percent) someone intervenes in what they are doing, and employees later return to doing the unsafe behavior more than half of the time (52 percent). That is to say, people are not terribly effective when it comes to stopping and sustainably changing other employees’ unsafe behavior. As with the first reason given for not intervening, the implication here is that about a fifth of employees choose not to intervene because they had done so in the past and it did not make a difference.

The two primary reasons that respondents gave for not intervening when they see something unsafe – (1) the other person would become defensive or angry, and (2) it would not make a difference – indicate a common, underlying problem. Namely, a large number of employees do not intervene when they see something unsafe because they either are or believe themselves to be incapable of doing so effectively. They do not believe that they can intervene in a way that stops and sustainably changes the other person’s unsafe behavior, while also preserving a respectful working relationship.

Why Are Employee Interventions Ineffective?

This begs the further question: “Why do employees fail to intervene effectively?” Survey respondents indicated an answer to this question as well: Employees wrongly assume that others behave unsafely because of laziness or poor motivation. Four out of five respondents (82 percent) said that when others act unsafely, it usually is because they do not want to make the extra effort to do the job the safe way. However, when asked separately about themselves, less than one out of ten respondents (8 percent) said that when they act unsafely, it is usually because they do not want to make the extra effort. On the contrary, and ironically, more than half of respondents (58.7 percent) said that when they do something unsafe, it usually is because they “do not realize that it is unsafe.” We call this “ironic” because it indicates that a majority of unsafe behaviors could be stopped if someone would simply inform the person that what they are doing is unsafe ... if someone would intervene. The other leading reasons that people gave for acting unsafely were, “someone else is rushing them” (11.2 percent) and “they do not know the safe way to do it” (10.4 percent).

Imagine that you are hard at work on what is, given your years of experience, a routine task. You are pushing yourself to meet a firm and quickly approaching deadline when a coworker stops you and, with what you perceive to be a mildly condescending air, tells you that you are doing it wrong. The coworkers starts in on how you don’t want to lose a finger or an eye, subtly suggesting that you should have known better – that you are somehow showing yourself to be lazy, careless or a “rule breaker.” Let’s say that you failed to lockout a machine, and now that small oversight somehow reflects a personal flaw, a motivational deficiency.

It is easy to see how, when employees incorrectly assume that their coworkers act unsafely because they lack personal motivation, they are likely to incite defensiveness and resistance to behavior-change by intervening in a way that both appears to be condescending and is focused on the wrong issue. When an employee does something unsafe because, for example, he does not have the right tools available, his supervisor can do a fine job of motivating the worker, but will have little or no impact on his performance. Being motivated doesn’t fix the problem of not having the right tools!

There is an established reason for which employees so consistently attribute poor motivation or personal flaws to those people who they observe doing something unsafe. We know that people are inclined to assume that, when other people do something wrong, it is because of a personal flaw. This is called the “fundamental attribution error,” which is the tendency to attribute behavior to a person’s disposition while neglecting external factors.4 This pervasive tendency is what is reflected in respondents’ assertion that the people they work with behave unsafely because they “do not want to make the extra effort.” Many employees jump to the conclusion that it is a matter of personal motivation or laziness and, in doing so, render themselves less effective at changing the other person’s behavior.

A Step in the Right Direction

We believe the results of this study indicate that something can be done to increase the frequency of direct safety interventions in the workplace: Enable employees to intervene effectively. In a separate study, during which we investigated intervention conversations as skills-based competencies, we found that a relatively small set of skills drives effective safety interventions. One of those skills is the ability to accurately diagnose the reasons behind another person’s unsafe behavior, instead of incorrectly attributing laziness, poor motivation or personal flaws. Enabling employees to avoid the fundamental attribution error and understand the real reasons behind unsafe behavior is a critical first step to make employees competent at holding safety interventions, and, consequently, increase the frequency of safety interventions in the workplace.

As people who are passionate about keeping workers safe, and as professionals who have committed entire careers to the pursuit of this goal, it is discouraging to learn that lives could have been saved, injuries prevented and environments preserved had someone simply spoken up. It can be tempting to point a finger and say, with an impulse of moral certitude, “You should have said something;” but as we have seen, it is not that simple.

Employees so often choose not to intervene because they are not equipped to do so effectively. Like the respondents in our study, we need to stop assuming that it is only a matter of motivation and start addressing the real factors that keep employees from speaking up and doing so effectively.

1Fischhoff, B. & Beyth, R. (1975). “I Knew It Would Happen: Remembered Probabilities of Once Future Things,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 13(1), 1-16.

2Zohar, D. (2002). “The effects of Leadership Dimensions, Safety Climate and Assigned Priorities on Minor Injuries in Work Groups,” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 75-92.

3Schein, E. (1992). Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey Bass, San Francisco.

4Ross, L. (1977). “The Intuitive Psychologist and his Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process,” L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (vol. 10, pp. 173–220). New York: Academic Press.

Phillip Ragain, Ron Ragain, Michael Allen and Mike Allen are with the RAD Group, an international training and consulting firm that specializes in organizational assessment and human factor solutions.