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Risky business: when convenience is put before safety in the workplace

By Ronnie Myers

Has a safety incident ever left you wondering why such a risk was taken in the first place?

Blame our DNA

Humans are hard-wired to be risk takers. It’s helped us survive as a species, but on an individual level, especially in a hazardous environment, risk-taking is not helping us.

To combat these instincts, safety professionals have to constantly sell employees on safety, especially in instances when the danger is very real but lies years down the road. It’s not that hard to persuade someone to wear cut-resistant gloves to prevent chopping off a finger. The danger is immediate and easy to recognize, and the solution is simple. It’s harder to persuade people to take additional, inconvenient steps to prevent a problem they can’t see or feel in the moment.

This problem came up for me recently. I was out in the field and saw a man with a very impressive ZZ Top beard about to start welding. Although he had his PPE, his beard prevented the respirator from forming a proper seal. Inhaling welding fumes damages lungs and can cause cancer later in life. The “later in life” aspect diminished the threat in his eyes. There were no immediate repercussions to deter him from working this way.

The alternatives were to shave his beard (that he had clearly been growing for years) or to find someone else to do the work for him. Neither of those options were appealing, so instead he planned to work in a hazardous environment without proper protection because the threat was invisible and easy to ignore.

I told him, “Look, if I let you weld like you are now, you’ll feel no pain. You’ll go home and I’ll probably never see you again. But I’m responsible for your safety. It’s my job to make sure you aren’t exposed to something that can cause you cancer 20 years down the road, so I’m asking you to shave for your health.”

As safety professionals, we run into situations like this all the time because we’re asking people to do things that don’t come naturally. Keeping your employees safe, both in the moment and years down the line, is our number one responsibility. It doesn’t matter if the job takes longer to finish or it’s inconvenient. Safety has to trump convenience in the workplace, even if it challenges our human instincts to take risks.