Every day are you having to continuously remind your employees to work safely and follow the safety rules?  These safety compliance rules were put there for their own good, but you feel like they don’t even care about safety.

This can be discouraging.  Maybe you feel that it’s just a bad culture and there’s nothing you can do.

When Employees Act Like they don’t care about safety they are telling you something:

  1. They don’t see any risk, they don’t believe anything bad is going to happen.
  2. They are willing to take the risk; they believe that what could happen is not as bad as not getting the job done.
  3. They think the probability is small and they’ll win in the gamble
  4. Attribution bias – they judge what happens to other people, not by the situation, but by personal attributes, so they don’t believe it could happen to them.

Let’s tackle each of these one-by-one.

Safety Compliance is Not Necessary Because Nothing is Going to Happen

Have you ever had an employee say to you “this is the way I’ve always done it and nothing happened.”  Those are swear words to a Safety Manager, I know.

But what they’re really saying is they don’t believe there is any risk and you are making it up.

We know it’s not true, but it’s our job to convince the worker of the opposite.  So when you hear these words, it should trigger a goal to change their minds; to make them see the hazard that you see.

Stories are the best way to do this.  Gather factual stories of what could go wrong and share them with your employees.  These stories don’t have to involve your facility. They could be similar job tasks at other operations.

Scour websites like Reddit, Facebook, OSHA, NIOSH and more to find those horror stories.  Share them with your employees to help open their eyes.

I was recertifying forklift operators one year; they thought I was going overboard about pedestrian traffic and the need for pedestrian walkways.

I found a story where a guest delivery driver walked in front of a trailer while the forklift operators were loading it.  She was pushed into the trailer and pinned between two tall pallets. No one knew she was there until the delivery was unloaded days later. 

I found the article in a forklift training newsletter and shared it in my training.  This story changed the mindset of my team. They never imagined that something like that could happen.

So always keep a library of horror stories on hand to have at the ready when this push-back comes up.

However, even when they hear the story, another excuse they have may be triggered, probably an attribution bias, so let’s continue down our list of reasons.

Safety Compliance is important, but a Little Cut Finger Isn’t Going to Hurt anyone

You may have a group of employees that think getting a little banged up comes as part of the job.  I once had a meat cutter who proudly showed off his scars like they were trophies of the trade.

They don’t want to lose a finger, but a sore back or cut finger is not a big deal.

I like to approach these situations in two ways because there’re a few competing issues here.

First, explain that they were lucky.  It could have been much worse.  They could have cut the finger off or herniated a disc and ended up in surgery.

Just like the first reason, share some horror stories, but also share stories of people who do the work and never get hurt; make them understand that is a possibility and their beliefs are causing their results. 

Someone who approaches the job with a safety mindset vs a “small injuries are ok” mindset will have different results.

Secondly, look at the management team.  How much pressure are they putting on the employees to get the job done?  This pressure can translate into ignoring safety rules and accepting small injuries, just to get the job done.

If there is management through fear, that will greatly increase minor injuries.  

People are willing to speak up for safety when the risk is high, but if they think it’ll be a band-aid level injury, they’re likely to stay quiet.

Gambling with Safety Compliance

As I sit here, in my home office, they are building several houses in my neighborhood.  That means a lot of roofers are working.

I haven’t seen any of them wearing fall protection which is required by law and relatively inexpensive to use.

If you talk to a roofer, they know what could happen if they fall off the roof.  They understand there is a chance they will not survive a fall.

But they continue to ignore the risk and get the job done. They are gambling.  They’re choosing comfort and convenience over their own lives.

Why? Because they think they will win; that the odds are in their favor.

Don’t judge the roofers too harshly, we all do this in different ways.  It is the same as when we drive over the speed limit because the risk of getting a ticket is low, or talk on the phone when driving thinking we can’t be distracted and get into an accident.

These are the hardest people to win over.  

I believe that safety behaviors are changed only through education and experience.  I don’t want our employees to experience an accident to change their behaviors. So we have to focus on education.

Yes, more stories, but also bring them to the reality of the situation. Pointing out all the near misses they have and what could’ve happened is a good way to start shifting their mindset.

Unfortunately, you may need to put in no-tolerance policies to combat these problems.

Due to our next reason, they may never change their beliefs.

How the Attribution Bias Affects Safety Compliance

The attribution bias is the tendency for people to under-emphasize the situational effects on a person’s behavior and over-emphasize the personality-based explanation for their behavior.

In safety terms, it is saying “They fell off the roof because they were stupid and didn’t get a good footing, but I fell off the roof because the boards were wet and slippery.”

Get it?  When it’s someone else we ignore the situation, but when it’s us we always look at the situation.

There have been multiple studies on the attribution error, also called attribution bias, and it is found in everyone.  So don’t think that there is something wrong with your people, they are just human.

How do you Combat Attribution Bias

As with any bias, shining a light on it always helps.  When you are aware you have this bias, then you can intentionally change your thoughts and beliefs around it.

When you do this often enough, then you change your habit and start paying attention to the situation first when evaluating someone’s behavior.

If you can get your people looking at accidents and incidents from the situational perspective first, you will get them to change how they approach the same situation in the future.

Start with your accident investigations.  How many times have the results pointed to the person and not the situation?  What about the questioning around the investigation, did it emphasis more on what the person was doing as opposed to the situation causing their behaviors?

Start discussing investigations with your employees, focusing on the situation.  If they say, he wasn’t following the rules – ask Why? What is the situation that caused him not to follow the rules?

This is how you shift the blame from the person to areas that you can REALLY make changes in.  By having these discussions with your employees, you are taking steps to change their bias as well.

It is powerful when this change is made.  The roofer goes from thinking it can never happen to them to “his foot slipped on that wet board, so could mine”.  

Because you are removing the emphasis on the person.  You take the individual out of it and it becomes something that could happen to anyone.


I challenge you to really look at your accident investigations and root out any attribution bias that may have lead to poor results.  

I also challenge you not to give up on those employees who think it has always been done this way or a little cut finger is not a big deal.  Start searching for relatable stories and share them in your newsletters, safety meetings, or pre-shift discussions.

Small, consistent actions will create a tipping point in your safety culture.


What’s your Safety Swear Word – or term – like “It’s always been done this way”.  I’m sure we can gather quite a few. Comment below and let’s create a list.

Hi, I'm Brye (rhymes with sky)!  I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience.  Specializing in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture, I have trained and coached many safety managers, just like you, on how to effectively manage workplace safety in the real world.   I would love to help you too.

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