Committed to Safety

Committed to Safety

How Emotions Can Negatively Influence Safety

Posted on: May 12th, 2016 by DJ Moran

As an organizational consultant, my clients occasionally resist discussing the role of emotions in the workplace. For many reasons, our culture has influenced us to avoid talking about feelings at work, but I’m hopeful as we move forward in the 21st century, we can become more open minded about this very core element of being human: we have feelings and they affect our behavior.

The Anxious Safety Officer

When I was consulting with a manufacturing plant, I met a man named Alejandro who loved his job as a safety engineer. He earned a great deal of respect from his bosses and those he worked with because he was passionate about safety and enjoyed working for the good of other people. He was good natured and friendly, and liked to get to know the people he was supervising. He enjoyed strong relationships with people who worked at his plant. Because he was so good at his job, he earned a promotion for his years of service and contributions he made to safety. Alejandro was thrilled to become the safety manager for the manufacturing plant, but he soon became overwhelmed by some of his new duties.

As safety manager, he was responsible for inspecting the safety preparation of incoming private contractors. Alejandro was good at walking through the plant and providing feedback on safety to his associates, but now he was doing it with strangers. Because there were new contracting companies coming in every week, he was not able to form solid relationships with the people he observed. Without the established personal relationships, he found giving corrective feedback to contractors much more difficult, and the job became a burden.

To make matters worse, the company required certified mechanics that were in high demand in the local area, so finding a replacement contractor was very difficult. If a qualified crew lost one contract, they could almost walk across the street and get another job. The mechanical supervisor had worked hard to find a contract crew that met the requirements and they arrived on Monday to start work. Alejandro’s first impression was not a good one. Alejandro saw that the crew of workers drove into the plant with some of the men riding in the back of the pickup truck, which was illegal in his state. He was surprised to see that the guys getting off the truck had tattoos up and down both arms. Some wore camo pants and cowboy boots, some wore their hair long, and one guy had a Mohawk. Alejandro led them through the company’s standard safety orientation explaining all of the rules that must be followed within the plant. During the entire meeting, most of the crew kept their sunglasses on, and sat back in their chairs with their arms crossed, and said nothing. Still, at the end of the meeting, they all signed the sheet documenting their attendance.

During the following week, Alejandro got caught up in an incident investigation and saw little of the new crew. In one of the morning meetings, the maintenance manager reported how pleased he was with the group’s productivity, stating “These guys really get the job done. We finally got a mechanical crew that is willing to work!”

The following week, Alejandro made a tour of the plant and saw that two of the contractors were clearly wearing hiking boots which didn’t meet safety regulations. There was no question in his mind these boots were not steel-toed because Alejandro’s son had a similar pair. Alejandro knew it was his job to correct this situation, but as he surveyed the situation, he got a tight knot in his stomach. He tried to imagine how he would approach the men, but every time he imagined what he would say, he would get extremely nervous. He dreaded the idea a confrontation with the crew. Worse, if they refused to comply, he would have to insist that they crew be let go, and the impact on scheduled repairs would have a significant economic impact on the company. Further, once he did anything that showed he knew about the issue, the company would be exposed to significant liability if it was not address. If he brought the issue to light, he knew he would have to take it all the way.

He took a deep breath, clenched his fists and told himself he would just force himself to speak up to them. Alejandro took quick and determined steps toward the crew of workers, and as soon as they sensed him coming, the men looked right at him. Alejandro’s pulse quickened and he felt the sweat rolling down his neck. He nodded hello and kept walking past the crew, back to his office.

Alejandro missed an important opportunity to have a crucial conversation with the contractors. Their safety and the plant’s safety record were both at risk. Alejandro knew what he was supposed to do and even how to do it, but his anxiety prevented him from keeping his commitment. He thought about this for the rest of the day, and promised himself that “tomorrow” there would be a better opportunity to give feedback to the two men.

When tomorrow came, Alejandro spent the day in his office dealing with email and completing some paperwork that always seemed behind. He was still unnerved about addressing the safety issues with the mechanical contractors. He never approached the work crew because of his fears. He decided it was the foreman’s job and that it was better to allow them to continue rather than risk a confrontation that could easily escalate all of the way to the site manager. He allowed his behavior to be guided by his fear, rather than his values and commitments. He began questioning his dedication to his job, started spending more time in his office, and became less effective at his job.

Everyone has felt fear and anxiety, just like Alejandro. We have all allowed our emotions get in the way of doing the right thing. We figure we’ll be more effective at work if we could just get rid of the unwanted emotion. But guess what? You don’t have to change the way you feel in order to act!


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