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Before taking a nice break for the holidays, I wrote this post, “Safety May Not be as Black and White as You Think.” In it, I claim that safety is a gradient made up of three primary categories, and then discuss the first of those designations: “more-safe.” If I could give just one piece of safety coaching to any supervisor or manager, it’d be this:

“See, acknowledge, and openly appreciate the more-safe behaviors and situations of your people.”

That awareness and vocalization alone will do more to improve safety performance than any program or process that pinpoints what people are doing wrong and stops them, or one that investigates accidents and injuries then recommends corrective action. I realize many safety practitioners––and even many of you reading this blog––would question this advice. But take the challenge: try it for just a month and see what improvements are made––then please reach out and tell me all about it.

In this post, we’ll discuss safety’s second category:


Less-safe is a label that describes any behavior or situation wherein the agreed upon “safe way” is deviated from. For example, a truck driver’s decision to not come to a complete stop at a stop sign falls into the less-safe category. An individual who does not take precautions to protect his eyes, face, and hands when handling a corrosive liquid does, too.

As I pointed out in the first post of this series, the vast majority of safety related behaviors––some experts say at least 95%––should be classified as more-safe. Of the 5% of circumstances and choices that remain, the majority are of the less-safe variety.

We’ve talked about how more-safe behaviors and situations deserve acknowledgement and appreciation. Less-safe actions and circumstances call for intervention and coaching. When a less-safe move is observed, the supervisor’s job is not to punish or discipline, but rather to interrupt the less-safe behavior and spark five critical and interrelated outcomes:

1. The less-safe actor must realize that a less-safe action has occurred. Obviously, this is only possible when everyone understands and embraces the safety gradient model, and the group has taken the time to clearly define and agree upon what the safe way looks like.

2. The less-safe actor and supervisors explore how and why the deviation occurred. This exploration can only happen when everyone embraces a fundamental principle: “Every behavior has a positive intent––even less-safe behaviors.” A person who acts less-safe does so because at that moment, it makes sense. To him, it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes the root cause of a less-safe choice can be found in the person’s perception, so exploring the thought process the less-safe actor went through that led to the deviation is critical. Perception can be shaped and even thrown off track by a variety of factors, from peer pressure to the belief that the job will take too long if it’s done in a more-safe manner. Other times, there are organizational barriers to people working more-safe: inadequate training, equipment shortages, the pressure to produce.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that good, smart people with the best intentions sometimes overlook or forget something, which leads to a less-safe action. A genuine “I forgot” is a legitimate response when exploring these less-safe causes. If you disagree with the excuse’s validity, ask yourself: when was the last time you left your house and forgot your keys, watch, sunglasses, or wallet?

3. Agreements are made and actions are taken. The less-safe actor and supervisor agree on what actions will be taken to minimize the possibility that the less-safe behavior will occur again. Then, those actions are implemented before work resumes.

4. Shared commitments are established. The less-safe actor should commit to the supervisor that the more-safe approach will be followed going forward. If appropriate, the supervisor will commit to the employee that she will take certain steps to make working more-safe easier and/or more accessible.

5. The supervisor acknowledge’s the less-safe actor’s willingness to explore the deviation and thanks him. Expressing gratitude for this openness is huge. First of all, looking into why a less-safe action occurred is a more-safe behavior––and we must celebrate those. This thankfulness is also important because once the less-safe actor accepts the supervisor’s thank-you with a “you’re welcome” or “no problem,” an unspoken social agreement is formed. The less-safe actor has implicitly given his word that he will follow through on the more-safe actions that have been agreed upon, while also signaling that the supervisor is welcome to return and observe the next time the situation arises.

This acknowledgment also gives the supervisor an opportunity to cultivate the former less-safe actor’s self-image. When the supervisor says something like, “Thanks for working with me on this. It’s good to work with people who are so cooperative,” she’s really saying, “You are cooperative.” Then, when that person says, “Thank you,” it is as though he’s saying to himself, “I am cooperative.” That’s powerful.

One last reason why referring to deviations as less-safe is smart: People don’t like being told they’re “unsafe.” If I ask a group, “Who among you is unsafe?” almost no one will raise their hand. But if I ask the same group, “How many of you, from time to time, do something less-than-safe?” virtually everyone will raise their hand.

We have a binary relationship to safety––safe or unsafe, good or bad, right or wrong––that holds us back. When someone is told their actions were unsafe, they internalize the message as, “You are bad. You are wrong.” The gradient model of safety eliminates such judgements in favor of less pejorative––but still entirely accurate––labels: more-safe and less-safe.

In this series’ next installment––slated for February––I will discuss how to reorganize and deal with the third and final category of safety.

Until then, go All-In.