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There is No Shortcut to Safety

November 6, 2013

We all take the occasional shortcut in life. Whether driving a certain route to work to shorten our commute or crossing the street between intersections instead of using the crosswalk - we are always looking for a faster way to do things. However, taking shortcuts at work can increase risk exposure and undermine job safety policies set forth by the organization.

Taking shortcuts on the job is a sign of poor SafetyDNATM. Employees are statistically six times more likely to experience an accident or injury as a result of unsafe behaviors, such as taking shortcuts, than unsafe working conditions. One large insurance firm even reported that 92% of their reported injury and workers’ compensation claims occurred because workers were not performing their tasks properly.

Faced with these numbers, why do individuals continue to take shortcuts on the job? Is it simply human nature to want to complete a task as quickly as possible? Are the demands of the job or the organization causing employees to act unsafely? Is the employee attempting to impress his or her boss with their level of production? More importantly, how can employers motivate workers to prioritize safety over speed while maintaining high production?

Shortcuts are actions that employees assume will save time and/or effort at the risk of being injured. Typically, individuals have both the knowledge and the control of an existing unsafe condition or action, but consciously choose to perform the action or ignore the condition. Employees take shortcuts for a variety of reasons, including:

  • They are in a rush to get the job done due to:

    • Organizational deadlines

    • Meeting a quota/prioritizing production

    • Running behind schedule

    • Getting non-functioning equipment up and running

    • Changes in the organization or job roles

    • A ‘time is money’ attitude

    • Job insecurity

    • The drive to work quickly

  • They are unaware of the safety hazards associated with a task

  • They are experienced at their job and have become complacent in following safety procedures

  • They actively decide to ignore safety rules

All too often, taking shortcuts results in negative outcomes. For example, one of the worst aviation disasters in history occurred in 1979 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, in which an American Airlines jet crashed, killing all 271 people on board and two airport employees on the ground.

The subsequent investigation revealed that two months prior in Tulsa, Oklahoma, mechanics working on this plane had taken shortcuts in removing the engines from the wing pylons for maintenance, which cracked an aluminum component in the pylon. Wear and tear during the flights afterward widened the crack, and eventually the pylon broke, causing the engine to tear loose.

Although this is an extreme example, even small accidents can prove to be quite costly, and organizations have a business interest in encouraging employees to avoid shortcuts and behave safely. According to OSHA, nearly three million nonfatal and 4,383 (3.2 per 100,000 full-time workers) fatal workplace injuries were reported in 2012.

The direct costs of injuries at work (e.g., workers’ compensation claims, medical costs) total approximately $250 billion annually. Furthermore, the indirect costs felt over time (e.g., lost work time, lower morale, poorer customer relations) add to this number in less obvious ways. Clearly, the risks associated with taking shortcuts far outweigh the small potential benefits of completing a task more quickly.

Taking shortcuts is a bad habit that some employees fall into, but organizations can take measures to change this behavior, starting with promoting a strong safety culture to improve employees’ SafetyDNA.  In addition, managers should:

  • Encourage open communication with employees about safety behaviors

  • Emphasize the organization’s values of workplace safety and prioritize safety over speed

  • Point out job hazards so that employees are aware of their present dangers

  • Enforce safety checklists so that employees do not skip steps during task completion

  • Discipline employees who purposefully break rules and take shortcuts

  • Remind experienced employees to maintain their diligence in following safety procedures and not become complacent

  • Empower employees to be accountable for their personal safety and that of their coworkers

  • Make sure that all necessary PPE and other safety equipment are readily available

In an ideal world, employers could design jobs such that the safe way to work is also the easiest and quickest way. However, some jobs are inherently more dangerous than others, and organizations must do everything in their power to engender high employee SafetyDNA so that these hazards are not unnecessarily compounded by unsafe behaviors and added risks from taking shortcuts. 

I encourage all organizations to adopt the popular safety phrase shortcuts cut life short.”

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