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Safety First and Last: The motivation challenge

By Jeff Thorne   

Features Business Intelligence education

Health and safety implementation has its challenges and keeping workers and contractors focused and committed to safety can be one of the most challenging tasks to effective safety implementation. When it comes down to it, safety is about people and about individual behaviour and not everyone is properly motivated to make the right decision or the safe decision. Unfortunately, more often than not, injuries and fatalities are a result of poorly motivated individuals and at-risk behaviour.

We’ve all seen this type of behaviour, and perhaps we’ve engaged in it ourselves. I’ve done it, not proud of it, but I’ve done it. It’s that behaviour where you perform a task well aware of the high risk involved and make the conscious or unconscious decision to do it anyways. I can see the heads nodding right now. Some of us engage in these activities daily because “it’s just the way things are done around here.”

This type of behaviour needs to change. Changing safety behaviour requires a change in attitude, and to change attitude there must be systems and individuals in place to motivate employees to want to change.

Motivation can be one of the most important factors directly or indirectly affecting safety behaviour. Ask your workers what motivates them to work safely – you’ll be surprised at the answers. Stressing the importance of developing the proper attitude towards safety cannot be undervalued. There are direct and indirect factors that can be effective in motivating workers to work safely. Supervisors are prime drivers behind motivating workers to work safely.

Employees watch what supervisors do. If the expectation is for workers to be safe they must lead by example. Failing to lead by example leads to role conflict, confusion and lack of trust. This can derail safety efforts quickly. Do not ignore substandard acts or practices and deal with safety infractions swiftly and appropriately.


Constant safety reinforcement and communication is important and it’s part of the job. This is an excellent opportunity to receive feedback and show your commitment. Too many people having the responsibility for delivering safety communication treat this as a paper-based exercise. They check the box and are happy that the task is completed. Treat communication as a prime opportunity to keep workers informed and up-to-date, address concerns and educate them about changes that affect their job.

There is a purpose to coaching workers when at-risk behaviours are identified. Coaching workers can assist in changing attitudes and behaviours, ensuring legislative compliance and motivating workers to follow the rules. It also sends that message that safe behaviour has value and undermining this value has consequences.

If supervisors set and maintain high standards, workers will know what is expected of them and the results of poor behaviour. When expectations are clear, workers will usually work hard to meet their managers’ and supervisors’ expectations. Ensure workers are held accountable for safety performance the same way they are for quality, production and other important elements.

I get it, supervisors are often swamped with the rigors of day-to-day administrative duties and may take the path of telling a person to perform a job or task without explaining why they want them to perform the task. Involve and engage your employees by asking them how they want to see safety applied to the task, or if there are any other factors or safety controls that need to be considered. Using this approach stimulates internal commitment, ownership, responsibility and accountability. It’s important to realize that safety performance is always more consistent when it arises out of commitment versus compliance or obligation. It’s essentially the difference between “have to” and “want to.”

Additional keys to effective engagement that can motivate workers to work safely include asking workers for suggestions and opinions, involving them in decision making, implementing or incorporating their ideas and being genuine and supporting them in their role. Remember, attitude greatly influences behaviour and safe work behaviour is the most critical factor to successful safety implementation.

Jeff Thorne is manager of training and consulting for Occupational Safety Group in London, Ont.

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