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The psychology of safety: how perception shapes prevention

Updated: Oct 19, 2023


As a Health and Safety Administrator, I've seen just how important it is to understand how people think and act when it comes to safety. It's not just about rules and steps; it's about the people who follow them. In this blog, we'll talk about the interesting way people's thoughts and actions affect safety at work. We'll also give you helpful tips on how to make safety a big part of how a company works.

Perception is how we see and understand the world around us. When people are at work, how they see and understand risks and dangers can make a big difference. Let's talk about how this works:

Selective Attention: People naturally pay more attention to things they think are important and ignore things they think are not important. This can be a problem for safety because some dangers might get ignored. To fix this, we need to make sure we look carefully for all possible dangers. For example, imagine a busy construction site where workers are focused on their tasks. They might not notice a small, but potentially dangerous, oil spill because they consider it unimportant amidst the noisy machinery. This selective attention can lead to accidents. To prevent this, we must actively search for all potential dangers, no matter how inconspicuous they seem.

Risk Tolerance: People are different when it comes to taking risks. Some people take chances and think accidents won't happen to them. Others are very careful and worry a lot about accidents. It's important to understand these differences so we can teach people about safety in a way that makes sense to them. For example, imagine two co-workers Jane and Mick. Jane is confident and tends to take shortcuts, believing accidents won’t happen to her. Mick, on the other hand, is cautious and double-checks everything to avoid accidents. To ensure their safety the training they receive could be customised to highlight caution for Jane and efficiency for John.

Changing how people think about safety takes time and effort, but it's really important for making safety a big part of how a company works:

Education and Training: We can help employees understand the real dangers they might face at work through safety training. We can use real stories and activities to make learning about safety interesting.

Communication: Talking about safety is very important. We need to remind employees about safety rules, share stories of when safety worked well, and listen when they have concerns. When people know they can talk about safety, they feel more valued and safer.

Leading by Example: Leaders in a company need to show that they care about safety. When leaders follow safety rules, employees are more likely to do the same.

Creating a Safety-Focused Culture:

Making safety a big deal in a company takes some work.

Including Everyone: We should involve all employees in safety. They should be able to point out dangers, report when something almost went wrong, and suggest ways to make things safer. When everyone helps with safety, it becomes everyone's job.

Recognising and Rewarding: We should praise and reward employees who make safety a priority. This not only motivates them but also shows others how to be safe.

Always Getting Better: Safety is always changing. We should keep checking and improving our safety rules to deal with new dangers.

Listening and Learning: We should have ways for employees to tell us if they see problems or have ideas for making things safer. And we should act on what they tell us, or feedback if the idea is not feasible.

In conclusion, appreciating that we may all think about and perceive hazards and safety differently, is very important. When we know how perception affects safety, we can take steps to make workplaces safer. By using what we know about human behaviours, we can add real value to a better, more embedded culture. Safety controls should never be just a list of dictated rules; it's something we all commit to so we can protect each other and have a better, accident-free workplace.


Written by: Samantha White



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