One of the recurring themes we’ve seen on this blog is that risk factors are sometimes dismissed by frontline workers, with potentially catastrophic results. In previous posts we’ve examined several factors that contribute to this phenomenon, including a culture of denial, groupthink and the minimization of warning signs.

To find out more about why this happens, we spoke with Yvonne Thompson, of Change Innovators. According to Yvonne, frontline workers often fail to think pro-actively about safety because they have learned that life’s easier if they follow instructions rather than thinking for themselves. Yvonne Thompson portrait

“When we work in a culture that says ‘do what you’re told’,” said Yvonne, “we don’t just stop thinking for ourselves, but we also shift the responsibility to those that tell us what to do.” In other words – ‘if something goes wrong, it’s not my fault because at least I was doing what I was told’.

How do we encourage workers to take responsibility?

“Frontline employees are much more capable of taking ownership of their own actions and behaviours than we give them credit for,” said Yvonne. “But the leaders within the organization have to give them permission to do that by modelling respect and great leadership.”

One of the biggest stumbling blocks, explained Yvonne, is that we want workers to take responsibility until they do something we don’t like. For instance, if a worker’s decision to draw attention to a potential risk causes extra work, they might then be discouraged from making those types of decisions in the future. A more productive response, said Yvonne, would be to explore, with the worker, the factors that informed that decision, determine whether it was justified and discuss alternative courses of action.

This requires a shift in attitude from corporate leaders down, because executives shape safety leadership, and so on down the ranks, setting the tone for the kind of safety culture within the entire organization.

“If I feel like I’m trusted and I have a voice I’m not going to hesitate to go to my supervisor and say ‘I think we have a problem’,” said Yvonne. “If I know my opinions and my view matter, and I am trusted to make informed decisions, then I will.”

In such an environment, where frontline workers are encouraged to ask questions and think for themselves, the whole organization benefits from a workforce of individuals all using their intellects and their abilities in every aspect of the operation.

To read more about the factors that contribute to risks being ignored or dismissed, check out ‘why denial can be deadly’ and ‘when small mistakes have huge consequences’.

In upcoming instalments of our Safety survivors series we will be meeting some frontline employees who discovered first-hand the cost of blindly following instructions, even in the face of potential risk. We’ll be sharing some powerful stories, and learning how their tragedies could have been avoided.