"Workplace Safety for a New Era" 1/2

Feb. 25, 2020 [No.73-2019]

Takahiro Nakamura, Professor,
Faculty of Societal Safety Sciences,
Kansai University

1. Frequently occurring accidents in workplaces

Working is one of our most basic social activities. We can make a living by getting some sort of remuneration as compensation for our labor.

Although being rewarded is one of the purposes of work, most people would not put themselves in danger and risk injury in pursuit of profit. Even if there were possibilities which could lead to profit, no one would ever want to get hurt or die simply by working. In many workplaces, preventing injury is taken into consideration and various measures are implemented to prevent injury, as well as minor troubles and malfunctions. Although everyone wants to work safely, healthily and comfortably, on the other hand, it is true that accidents and disasters both large and small will never truly disappear.

If this is the case, then how many accidents, which have never been experienced or even predicted have occurred in our workplaces? Rather, most of the accidents that occur in the workplace are the same type of accidents that someone has experienced at some time in the past. Naturally, with these types of accidents, their causes have already been identified and measures have been taken to prevent their reoccurrence. Nevertheless, far from being eliminated, why do they keep happening over and over again?

Although there are various types and forms of work, a common background and issues exist in relation to recurring accidents. These will be discussed below, based on the author's own experiences.

2. The difference between "telling" people and "letting them understand"

Most work cannot be completed by one individual alone, and is instead based on cooperation with other people and relationships with customers. If many others are involved in the task, a degree of mutual interaction always exists between them.

It is not uncommon to hear managers say "I told them properly (to prevent the accident)." after an accident has happened. If no one wants an accident to occur, it is only natural to tell people "something" in order to prevent one. However, "telling" is just the information transmission (output) part of an interaction. A more important point is whether the recipient understood what they were "told" and reflected that in their recognition or behavior. That is "letting them understand (input)." If the recipient has understood the information properly, their recognition, response or behavior would change somewhat. Whether the person who tells them the information can keep their eye on these changes in the recipient's daily work habits is connected to another issue. Have managers developed their capability to "oversee workplaces?"

3. Cannot let them understand

Whether one may be a manager or a worker, no one wants accidents to occur, and everyone believes that safety is important. However, managers often seem to force their decisions on workers unilaterally. Surely, managers do not mean to do that. For them, there might be no time to explain their decisions to workers because they are too busy with other work.

On the other hand, what if you are a worker? If you were told only their decisions without any explanations, your work would not progress if you kept asking managers questions every time and you may even annoy the manager. Even if you do not really understand it, or do not fully consent to it, you can temporarily make it through the situation by saying "Understood." As a result, once workers have received the information told to them by managers, they just shelve the information because they do not understand it even though they have said "Understood."

When it comes to exchanging information, the size and shape of the "containers" for this information are important. No matter how useful the information is, if it does not fit the size and shape of the recipient's "container", the information will be left to decay in the end without ever having been fitted into a "container." If managers force the information into the "container," even though the size and shape do not fit, recipients will feel that their freedom of behavior and attitude has been taken away. Consequently, the motive to get back this freedom is generated inside them and this may lead to a backlash against the pressure (psychological reactance).

For these reasons, managers who tell workers information need to figure out the size and shape of the recipients' (= workers') containers and tell them information that fits them. Managers, who feel that somehow their workers do not understand what they have been told, even though they have tried to tell them properly, might solve the problem by looking back at how they have told them information in the past.

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