That simple interview question changed the way I think about safety in the workplace. It had little impact, by itself, on hiring decisions, but it led me to a different way of leading safety.
Whenever I asked it, I wasn’t looking for the “yes” or the “no”. I was looking for the answer to the follow-up question – the “why or why not” question. That told me a lot about how the individual considered decisions related to their safety, as well as their level of respect and understanding of regulations.
You might think that when someone is interviewing for an employer that had a well-known attitude toward safe practices that most interviewees would say “I always wear my seat belt”. Many did respond that way, but a large number chose to explain why they didn’t wear them.
What impressed me the most among the wearers was their apparent knowledge about how seat belts save lives. They know of examples, and they believed that the requirement to wear them was justified in the fact that fewer people are killed in auto accidents because they wear seat belts.
What confused me the most were the non-wearers who insisted that either the government had no business telling them how to be safe or that the probability of being stuck in a burning car wearing a seat belt that trapped them was a greater risk than all other possible outcomes.
As an employer, we expected people to follow the rules, the standards, without consideration for their agreement. They did not have permission to make an independent risk assessment about safety shoes or protective glasses. They were required to wear them.
As a leader, I had to make a choice in how to lead regarding safety; do I lean on regulations, or do I try to get the employees to think differently and begin to gain a lower risk tolerance for their work decisions.
The regulation route might appear to be easier, but for every regulation there is a situation you didn’t consider that might require an additional rule.
The education and thinking route takes time and money. Ultimately it makes all your employees smarter about their safety, and maybe even bleeds into their non-work hours. Maybe, just maybe, they will start to wear their seat belt each time they get into their car. Maybe they will turn their cell phone off in the car. Maybe they will use a step-ladder and not a kitchen chair when they change the light bulb.
I believe that getting your employees to think about safety – along with good safety standards, improves your average tenure. People who don’t get injured at work or home will work longer.
Do you value your personal safety enough to wear your seat belt? Do you use the kitchen chair when changing the lightbulb? Try to be more disciplined about your own personal safety, and you will develop a whole new appreciation for why your employees sometimes act outside of the standards you would prefer they stay within.