Understanding Safety Norms

In psychology a Norm is a shared set of beliefs among a group in which there are behaviors that are and are not accepted. The group evolves to have a set of do’s  and don’ts that are established for how they should act in their environment. Research suggests that people will change how they behave based on the perception of the group or situation they are involved with.

Here are two basic and very simplified examples.

  1. When a group of friends get together they find that they always sit in the same places. The social norm for this group becomes to continue that routine.
  2. When someone goes to a friend’s party, they notice many people dressed in blue. At the next party, they decide to wear blue

In example one, the friends create a social norm. In example two, the person perceives the social norm and changes their behavior to match. The key point in example two is that perception creates the behavioral change. The party group may just have a coincidental use of the color blue. The person changes their behavior because they think that blue is the accepted norm even if it is not.

In safety, social norms can be powerful tools for both positive and negative behaviors. Another double edged sword is that once a norm is in place, it takes significant effort to create the cultural and behavioral changes to modify the norm.

Safety people have heard the stories of how crafts people are not really doing their job until they get their first shock, cut, burn, flash, etc. These are cultural norms that are created through the belief that people have to earn through experience. They need to feel the negative before they can understand the aspects of working safe. What happens, though, when the minor lesson learning injury turns into a significant injury or death? The only difference between a first aid and a fatality is luck. The norm creates unnecessary risk.

From a different standpoint, a new employee is trained that there is a full time safety glasses policy. During the on-the-job training, he notices that occasionally others do not wear their glasses all the time. The new employee makes the decision that during a task that has a higher risk of eye injuries to not wear his glasses. This results in a first aid to his eye. During the investigation, it is discovered about the new employee’s perception of the safety glass policy. The investigation then expands to ask those that he was training with about their use of safety glasses. Let’s assume that the culture of the organization is generally positive. The investigator learns that there are times were people feel that safety glasses are really not needed, so they choose to be lax with the use. When the question is asked about the specific task that led to the injury, the employees state that they always wear their glasses performing that task because of the higher risk. The new employee perceived the social norm and put himself at higher risk because of it.

This example is pertinent because it shows how social norms can be perceived and create unanticipated risk. Because the new employee did not know about all the risks, he made assumptions about the process and what would be accepted. This also shows how important mentoring is with a new employees. It is important that the policies are followed. This also speaks to assuring that if a policy is in place, it should be enforced fairly and consistently. Most likely, the supervisor knew that the employees had a habit of removing eye protection during certain tasks. The more the supervisor allowed the team to keep removing the glasses, the more it reinforced the social norm.

Now let’s look at the less dramatic and more powerful social norm using the same scenario. A new employee is hired and is trained on the full time use of safety glasses. As he is being trained, his mentor always wears his safety glasses. When they need to be cleaned or replaced, this is done in a safe area and completed properly. When the new employee sees someone without their safety glasses, he also sees that either another employee or the supervisor promptly uses the chance for constructive coaching about eye safety. The new employee perceives the social norm and always wears his eye protection. He never has a first aid.

So . . . which scenario takes the most energy to create that kind of culture? Yep, the second one. Which scenario creates the most employee engagement? Again, the second. Which scenario would be the one most likely to have the higher quality and better delivery metrics? The award goes to number two. A culture that has a discipline to self-coach and self-correct for safety will also use those same tools to drive all the company metrics. The positive social norm can create behaviors that benefit all aspects of the business. Social Norms can be powerful for a company to utilize and understand.


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