At Risk Behavior: When Unsafe Conditions Stare You in the Face

No, the image above is not an iStock photo nor one taken from a safety magazine. This is a live action shot I took from the window of a hotel where I was conducting a Safety Leadership workshop for a client.

I shared this photo with the group as part of our safety briefing to start the second day of the workshop, and fortunately for the people on that scaffolding, the concerned group not only took immediate notice, they took offense!  They were furious that A) These workers were taking such risks with their health and lives; B) That their foreman was allowing/encouraging them to work unsafely; and C) That no one had done anything about it.
They also wanted to know what country this had occurred in—thinking that this must be some unregulated backwater territory.  It certainly could not be that it was happening just outside the very hotel where we were sitting in—in North America!

A few of the at-risk behaviors and violations that the front-line supervisors in my class quickly spotted included:

  • Working at height without wearing a 5-point harness or being tied off
  • No tool tie-off at height
  • Unsecured scaffolding (including the “pirates walk” connecting the two sections of steel scaffolding)
  • Improper use of lift vehicle to transport loads
  • No ground spotter
  • No barricades, fencing, or signage on the ground
  • No kick plates on scaffolding
  • Improper scaffolding for that height

Remarkably,  a few of the participants felt compelled to take action on what they saw and went outside to calmly but firmly speak with the foreman and raise several of the points listed above.  The foreman began with a curious deflection of, “Hey, I’m a 3rd party vendor.”  I’m not sure why that fact mattered.  The participants countered by pointing out that if anything happened to the men on that scaffold, the foreman would be liable.  As he continued to deflect, one of the course participants told him, “You need to STOP work immediately and remediate these hazards!”  The foreman reluctantly ordered the workers to STOP.

We later discovered, not surprisingly, that his efforts were half-hearted.  This time, we found the workers back on the job, on the precarious scaffolding, wearing 5-point harnesses improperly and with a few ropes now tied to the scaffolding (such as it was) in an attempt to secure the site.

This didn’t sit well with one of the workshop participants so he called the local authorities to report the unsafe work conditions.  Government inspectors were onsite within minutes and immediately ordered the job shut down and the scaffolding to be removed.

The entire episode was an incredibly rich learning experience for both the participants in the class, as well as (I hope), for the work crew who was ordered to stand down.  It was a powerful example illustrating that everyone’s behavior makes sense to them—no matter how crazy it seems to us.  The class participants were able to use tools such as ABC Analysis, PIC/NIC Analysis®, and Pinpointing, to not only define why these men were taking the risks they were, but also what they could do about them as concerned observers.

Perhaps just as important, each of the participants demonstrated that leadership in safety does not stop when they leave the work site.  It is a responsibility that they carry proudly, 24/7.  They passionately demonstrated safety as a value, and used their leadership behaviors to avert what could have been an immediate tragedy and perhaps one in the future as well.

Posted by Tim Nolan, Ph.D.

Tim Nolan is a trusted advisor to business and organizational leaders, partnering with his clients to achieve the outcomes they seek for themselves and for their businesses.