Psychology and safety

Psychology and safety

Guest Post by the late George Robotham

Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid - Maslow's Theory IllustratedI am writing this for the purpose of promoting discussion about a topic I am not sure of. The issues are not clear in my mind but I suspect discussion will be of value to fellow safety people.

Over the years I have developed a range of safety technical skills and they do not let me down much. Where I am let down more than I would like is in my interactions with my fellow human beings. No matter what you do the people issues will be the ones that cause the most difficulty.

Early in my safety career I experienced 3 defining events.


At one organisation the production manager and I reported to the location manager. I had a lot of support from the location manager whereas the production manager and the location manager frequently clashed. There was a safety issue that I could have handled better by involving more people in my decision making process. The technical basis of what I did was sound but I did not explain it to some of the stakeholders. The production manager blew the issue out of all proportion, tempers got flared and there was a lot of noise. When the fuss had died down I quickly and easily resolved the issue by working with one of the production manager’s direct reports.

I could not understand why the production manager got so excited over such a minor matter. One of the other managers told me what was really happening was the production manager was taking an opportunity to get back at the company manager by pointing out my mistakes.

At another location I used to run a 2 day accident investigation course with the central theme that personal damage occurrences (Accidents) were the result of People, Machine and Environment essential factors. I emphasised there was a lot more to safety than blaming the people.

A new manager started whose focus was finding out who was to blame for accidents and kicking their rear end. My training, while technically sound did not go over very well with him and he complained very loudly to senior management. There was a great deal of excitement. He displayed considerable inflexibility in his approach and was eventually told by senior management to pull his head in. My manager made it clear to me that he expected me to keep doing what I was doing.

At another location the manager the site OHS person reported to contacted me because he was concerned about the technical basis of how the site safety person was conducting a particular aspect of his job. The manager had researched the issue to a certain extent, had his concerns justified but had no luck in getting change. I researched the issue very thoroughly and forwarded the results to the manager. The manager then requested I visit the site and influence the site safety person.

I had a large pile of well researched information to prove my case but the site safety person would not shift his approach. I later discovered he spent a fair bit of time piling crap on me to anyone who would listen. He amused people at a meeting of all company safety people by saying my definition of a reasonable man was one who agreed with me.

As a relatively young OHS person I came to the realisation that no matter how technically sound your approaches, the people issues can bring you undone.

I have done a small amount of psychology training with a focus on communications skills, interpersonal skills, employment interviewing and counselling. Fascinating stuff and o so relevant to safety!

Psycho-social issues

I have only had to deal with one psycho-social claim in my time managing workers compensation and rehabilitation. A female secretary was being harassed and bullied by her female boss. The department manager knew what was happening, did nothing to manage the situation, tried to sweep it under the carpet and generally mismanaged the situation with the result that relationships between the 2 parties deteriorated.

By the time I got involved in my role as Rehabilitation coordinator the secretary had a medical certificate for many months off work due to stress. She was a mess but fortunately she had a supportive family. I liaised with her treating health professionals and sympathetic managers at work and eventually found her a position where she was able to gradually return to work. She was very happy that she had been removed from the bullying behaviour and that we had shown a lot of interest in resolving her issues.

The thing that concerned me was how little sympathy the secretary received from her peers, the people who said she should just toughen up did not understand the extent of the problems she had been exposed to.

I have to admit to being at the edge of my comfort zone when I was case managing this issue.

The difficult area with psycho-social cases is what part of it is attributable to the person’s particular psychological makeup and what is attributable to work, this is where you need the mental health experts. Once these issues emerge they can be very difficult and time consuming to resolve.

Much better to treat your employees with respect and dignity to start with and constantly monitor if problems are occurring. Sometimes relatively minor issues can result in perceived difficulties.

Psychology education

I have been examining options for psychology education.

Thinking about what I am trying to achieve out of this exercise-

Improve my interpersonal skills

Improve my facilitation and communications skills

Improve my teambuilding skills

Have an ability to design and interpret safety survey instruments

Understand what motivates people

Facilitate problem solving groups

Understand human information processing

Improve my counselling skills

Anyway I have rambled on a bit, but there may be food for thought in the above.


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