Changing Beliefs About Safety.

Safety meeting topic – Changing Beliefs About Safety.

One of the most difficult hurdles I had to get over when I was working to improve the workplace safety at the Westvaco plant I once worked in was overcoming the idea among the maintenance men that getting hurt was expected. These men took great pride in their work and they were willing and felt it was expected of them to occasionally get hurt while performing their work duties. “No pain – no gain” was more than just a slogan to them – they took it very literally.

When I first started talking to them about leaving work in the same or better condition than they arrived, they looked at me like I was from Mars. They simply did not believe that they could do the jobs that they were called to do and not face occasional injury. They all had the deep seated belief that maintenance work was inherently dangerous and that if you did it long enough, you would get hurt.

Changing this belief became my first task toward improving the safety of the maintenance department.

The core of the belief change came from developing proper work instructions. Previous efforts that focused on PPE and accident prevention were seen as just annoyances to the maintenance workers. Their belief that they would get hurt anyway just made them resent the PPE and other accident prevention efforts.

I began by observing their work practices. When I saw them taking an unnecessary risk, I gently suggested a safer method. Often they would object that the alternative would take longer. When they realized that I was serious about using a safer method even if it took a little longer, they began to make better choices themselves.

I also assigned one of the more boisterous electricians the duty of developing workable lock out tag out procedures for each piece of equipment in the plant. He actually located every disconnect in the entire operation, numbered and labeled it and wrote instructions on how to properly de energize that piece of equipment. While tedious and time consuming to develop, these procedures became a key factor in changing the belief that getting hurt was inevitable.

Through the development of the LOTO procedures, we found that some equipment could not be easily locked out. Thankfully the Westvaco management backed up their words about commitment to safety with their dollars and paid to have some very expensive disconnects added to the printing presses so that they could be safely de energized for maintenance work as well as for operational changeovers.

Again, this very visual commitment from the management went a long way in instilling the belief that injuries were not to be expected from the maintenance group. Their belief system began to change as well as their unsupervised decision making process.

During our work planning sessions, we began to discuss the safest way of approaching a problem – not just the fastest or cheapest solution. We discussed potential hazards and made sure we had adequate safeguards in place to protect us from these hazards as we worked. We began to tell a new story.

Our new war stories were about how much we accomplished and how quickly we achieved our goal rather that who got hurt and how we worked through the pain.

The nature of maintenance and repair work makes it difficult to write specific procedures for each situation. After all, if the machine was working properly, we most likely would not be working on it. However, the general methodology of approaching a situation can be standardized.

Our lock out tag out procedures not only gave specific instructions on what switch to flip but also advised the workers on the other potential hazards of the machine and how to properly set up the repair procedures to minimize potential risk. They also let them know how to get the job done as quickly as possible.

Focusing on the work that needed to be done and developing specific work instructions for each machine allowed the workers to believe that they did not have to get hurt at work. Morale improved as did the number of repair work orders accomplished each month. Injuries went from about one a month to almost none in a year.

Telling a new story and altering the belief system of the workers accomplished way more in a few moths than years of focusing on PPE and accident prevention had done in the past.

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