We’ve spent Part I and Part II of this series exploring the typical relationship we have to safety––i.e., either safe or unsafe––and why that binary understanding is not helpful. Instead, I encourage a gradient approach that categorizes behaviors and incidents as “more safe,” “less safe,” or, as we’ll explore here in the series’ final installment, “unsafe.”

The unsafe designation is the least frequent of the three, but it’s just as important as the other two safety categories. Unsafe behaviors or situations have immediate, catastrophic potential. In these scenarios, there is no time to discuss, explore, or interact. Behaviors have occurred that must be halted immediately and should never be repeated.

Here’s the problem: when we think of safety as binary, less-safe situations and actions are lumped in with the unsafe. That’s an oversimplification––and it’s ultimately dangerous.

Review the list of behaviors and scenarios below and determine which you’d dub less-safe and which are unsafe:

  • Driving without wearing a seatbelt
  • Working at elevation without wearing gear and taking precautions to protect yourself from falling
  • Wearing leather gloves while working with a circular saw
  • Grinding while not protecting your face or hands
  • Entering a confined space without first testing the atmosphere
  • Working on a pump without isolating the energy
  • Darting into a street without first checking for traffic

I’m willing to bet that you categorized all if not most of these actions as unsafe. Most people do. But in my proposed gradient model, every single one of these scenarios are or could be called less-safe. I know it’s difficult for many to tell the difference, and I admit that even those who can will not categorize this list in the same way.

Now we get to the heart of the gradient model: the goal is not to ensure everyone agrees on each specific categorization. The goal is to be more intentional when it comes to the conversation that must be had with the person who’s acted either less-safe or unsafe. If it’s a less-safe deviation, clued-in leaders, managers, and supervisors will coach the person who misstepped; if it’s an unsafe behavior, the actor needs to receive punishment or at least the threat of it.

So how do you tell the difference between less-safe and unsafe?

An unsafe scenario unfolds like this: you’re observing, and you scream, “Look out!”; “Stop that right now!”; or “Hey, what the f#$% do you think you’re doing?!”

Now revisit the list of actions and situations above, and think about when you’d shout out something similar. When I consider the list, I see that under some circumstances, I might yell warnings for each one of them. Under other circumstances, I would not.

When I wouldn’t frantically blurt out warnings, I know I’m dealing with a less-safe situation––not an unsafe one––and I coach instead of punish.

Peer-to-peer correction of unsafe behaviors

Peer-to-peer punishment for an unsafe action is difficult for many of us since we’ve all been conditioned to be uncomfortable with––even to fear––punishment. But here’s the thing: punishment does not inherently mean physically harming someone, disciplining them, or firing them. Addressing an unsafe scenario amongst peers is as simple as speaking up and saying something like, “Hey, stop what you’re doing and come down here right now. My friend, around here we don’t work at heights without protecting ourselves from falling.” Peer disapproval can be a form of discipline.

If the unsafe actor responds by climbing down and asking, “Where do I get some fall protection?” the correct response is, “Let me show you––and by the way, thanks for letting me get on you back there. I was only doing it because I don’t want you to get hurt.”

If their response is, “No problem, I should have known better,” you two have an unspoken social agreement like the one we discussed in part II of this series, “Safety’s Second Category: Less-safe.”  That’s good news.

However, if the person responds, “F$#@ off. Who are you to tell me how to do my job?” You, the peer, have three choices:

  1. Continue to attempt to influence this person who seems unapproachable by working to build a coaching relationship with them.
  2. Let this person continue at-risk behavior and hope nothing bad happens.
  3. Go find a supervisor.

In a peer-to-peer situation, I don’t recommend options 2 or 3 for obvious reasons, such as the danger choice 2 poses and the cultural breakdown 3 threatens. If employers truly want a safe workplace, they must teach their people how to build coaching relationships, and how and when to give what kind of safety feedback. The goal is to build a work culture where providing more-safe, less-safe, and unsafe feedback is commonplace and accepted without affront.

If you’re told to “mind your own business,” you should recognize immediately that you haven’t done the work needed to build a coaching relationship with this person. So where do you start?

Begin by looking for things this person does well, as well as actions that fall into the more-safe category, and acknowledge him for them––a strategy explored in part I of this series. When a coaching relationship exists, an “up-yours” reaction is unlikely. You will have earned the right to intervene because the person will believe you are doing so to help him stay safe, not to make him wrong.

Supervisor-to-employee punishment in unsafe scenarios 

When a supervisor needs to punish an employee for an unsafe action, it looks something like this: “Wow! Get yourself down from there right now and be careful doing it.” Once the employee is no longer in immediate danger, the supervisor should switch to a less-safe conversational approach, such as, “You need to understand something about me. People who work for me work safely. We follow the rules and procedures to the letter in my group. Do you understand?”

If the employee responds with something like, “Yes, sir!” the appropriate supervisor reply is something like, “Good. Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s discuss why you chose to put yourself at risk like that. I want us to figure out together what we need to change so that choice is never an option again.”

If the employee responds with something inappropriate or insubordinate, the supervisor does not have a safety problem. She has an employee relations problem. It’s my experience that this also points to a crucial issue: allowing people to enter an organization who are not a good fit for the organization’s culture and really have no business being there. That calls for a recruitment and hiring reassessment.

Big picture? You want to create a culture of shared values, where coaching relationships can be established between peers and supervisors and peers alike. You’ll earn a safer space, better productivity, and more fulfilled people.