Why do employees risk it all?
By Randy DeVaul
Did you know that for every one injury caused by an unsafe condition, there are six injuries caused by committing an unsafe act? It is important to know the difference between an unsafe condition and unsafe act to understand why some workplace injury claims are denied both in the United States and in Canada. These definitions are based on the person, not the equipment, and may differ from other sources.
“Unsafe condition” involves lack of knowledge
An unsafe condition is one in which “an individual does not have either the knowledge or the control over existing circumstances that may be unsafe, that would otherwise suggest he would not perform the action.” Here are two examples:
- A precast plant steel welder may work in an awkward position that creates back strain but has no other means to reach or perform the work on the equipment. The welder cannot control the location of the work or the physical position required to perform the task.
- A precast concrete delivery driver operates a truck in which a fatigue crack in the suspension suddenly sheers. The driver was unable to see the crack during the walk-around inspection and did not have knowledge that there was a problem. (For a recent discussion of precast driver safety, see the Precast Inc. September-October 2010 issue.)
A new employee or newly assigned employee responsible for performing an unfamiliar task may also experience an unsafe condition by not thoroughly knowing how to perform the task correctly. Of course, this situation exposes the root cause of the problem: inadequate task training or a breakdown in communication with the direct supervisor or manager. Such matters usually are addressed through improved worker task training, supervisory consistency in overseeing established procedures, and worker accountability to perform duties necessary to correct safety concerns.
“Unsafe act” is when safety rules are ignored
An unsafe act is “an action taken by an individual who has both knowledge and control of an existing unsafe condition or action, but chooses to perform the action or ignore the condition.” Examples of unsafe acts are:
- A plant worker is running an aggregate conveyor without the tail pulley guard in place. If the employee performs a proper pre-shift walk-around inspection, the missing or fallen guard should be obvious and be replaced prior to starting the belt. Operating equipment without a pulley guard is an unsafe act, as the employee is able to correct the deficiency and visually identify the hazard but fails to do so.
- An employee operates sandblasting equipment without wearing a face shield and exposes the face and eyes to flying debris that can penetrate skin. A properly trained employee knows to wear the face shield and has the proper safety equipment on hand but chooses not to follow plant safety procedures.
Such matters are typically addressed through performance management or discipline; performance evaluation and review; feedback from observations; and possible termination if performance issues are not corrected.
Shortcuts: usually basis for unsafe acts
When performing an unsafe act, a worker is generally seeking to take a shortcut – an action that the worker assumes will save time and/or effort at the risk of getting injured. The worker is willing to take the risk for the perceived or derived benefit without regard to the overall consequences.
Why do workers deliberately perform actions that can, and ultimately will, cause harm to themselves, co-workers and their families? Why are employees willing to “risk it all” trying to save time in the performance of a task for which they are already being paid to do?
Placing production over safety leads to shortcuts
Sometimes workers feel pressured by their supervisors to push the limits; the supervisor either directly or indirectly (by perception) allows the worker to ignore appropriate procedures for the sake of speeding up production. Supervisors who knowingly allow unsafe actions are supervisors waiting for a fatality; they neither realize their full legal responsibilities of their position nor understand the personal consequences that can ensue.
Creating an atmosphere in which the employee believes (or is directly told) that production far outweighs the value of doing a task correctly (which includes doing it safely) is what often drives workers to take unsafe shortcuts. Managers and employees should never willingly compromise their own safety or health for the sake of a product or production rate. To run any kind of equipment with known safety defects or with inadequate training sets everyone up for failure, including death.
Often, however, it is not the supervisor who pushes a worker to take such shortcuts. It is the worker who makes the decision to do (or not do) something about which the supervisor is not aware. There seem to be many excuses as to why workers knowingly place their lives at risk. Such actions or attitudes can be costly to workers.
Claims for “unsafe act” injuries can be denied
It is not simply a financial cost to the company that is the issue. Company costs include medical expenses; lost production; employee replacement for the short term (generally someone not as experienced to perform the task); higher compensation; and premium costs. Let us not forget the cost of litigation if the injured person is not a direct employee or if the direct employee can argue reckless or negligent action by the supervisor, manager or employer. But the greater cost, at least in the eyes of the injured worker, involves quality-of-life issues.
An injured worker, depending on the severity of the injury, has a lot to lose. An injury is often covered by workers’ compensation benefits, but if the worker knowingly performs an action in direct violation of a safety standard or policy, the workers’ compensation carrier has the right to deny the claim. This may cause the incurred medical costs to fall back on the worker’s health insurance carrier. Some North American carriers are now also denying worker claims for an “unsafe act” injury occurring at work rather than an injury or illness away from work. In other words, a health insurance carrier may deny paying for a claim that was “work-related” and denied by the workers’ compensation carrier. This insurance-claim scenario following an “unsafe act” would cause the entire financial burden to fall directly on the worker: all medical costs; missed wages from work; and the overriding stress caused by a loss of income during recovery to pay for all the medical costs.
“We don’t pay for stupid”
One example of an “unsafe act” is an employee who wanted to see what would happen if a chemical used in the processing plant was mixed with water while in a confined container (2-liter soda bottle with the cap). When the container exploded and burned the employee, the workers’ compensation carrier denied the claim under “we don’t pay for stupid.” The employee was left solely responsible for all medical costs; loss of hourly wages for missing work; loss of spouse’s wages (spouse had to miss work to address the emergency); and all of the follow-up appointments. These expenses also resulted in the couple losing their home.
In so many cases like the one described, there is the initial financial burden that occurs as a direct result of the injury which is compounded by additional financial burdens, including lost wages for the spouse’s time required to accompany the injured worker to follow-up medical treatment (doctor appointments and physical therapy). Medical-related costs have an adverse cumulative effect, as missed wages and medical costs dip into a worker’s family savings.
Cost of injuries goes beyond money
What other “costs” affect the injured worker?
- Physical healing and recovery process. – Pain caused by an injury is often needless. Depending on the injury, the consequences can be life-long: permanent disability; amputated limbs; loss of full range of function or motion; and residual, continual pain.
- Mental anguish. Embarrassment suffered by a worker for incurring an injury that may be seen as careless or stupid by co-workers and/or family is a hurdle that needs to be addressed when the worker returns to regular duties. Peer pressure can cause significant mental anguish when the worker is assigned modified duty during the healing and recovery process.
- Disruptions. While healing, there are disruptions of normal duties or activities, both on the job and at home. A worker with a broken arm can’t pick up his child; healing from a broken leg restricts activities with the family; back injuries may not ever fully heal, causing a permanent disruption in family lifestyle and activities.
- Family stress. An injured worker also creates family hardships: additional financial stress; marital stress from financial worries; and added work burdens on family members (at home and outside employment). What are the costs associated with an injury? As listed, they are numerous and can come with a very high price tag, financially and personally.
Safety program: must be part of company culture
Is taking that shortcut really going to provide the savings and benefit that is perceived? Ultimately, no. We need to continue working together toward eliminating unsafe actions through observations and feedback; reviewing processes and procedures to ensure they are correct; ensuring proper training with available tools; ensuring appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is identified and worn for assigned tasks; and that PPE is readily available in convenient work-area locations.
Addressing worker behavior is important, but just as important is creating an environment that supports and is committed to the right worker behavior. We need to address the overall performance expectations of the total process to which the individual worker is exposed so we can ensure that we provide the environment, equipment and response capabilities that we expect from that worker. Without these additional elements, workers may be placed in a position where dangerous choices are perceived as necessary.
Workers need to know they are supported and encouraged to make the right choice all of the time. If the work is done properly, it will be safe, productive, efficient, cost-effective and of high quality. All of these pieces have to be integrated together for there to be positive change in the total company culture as well as in individual decisions related to job performance. When this is done, the total performance of the business can be improved or enhanced to everyone’s profit.
Randy DeVaul, Westfield, N.Y., has more than 30 years of experience as a safety consultant and author/writer.