The Safety Myth: It Won’t Happen to Me

Although you know yellow means caution, you take the opposite action believing the light will not turn red before you glide through, and believing that a car nearing the intersection from another direction won’t run its light at the same time you’re running yours.  Believing, despite the risk, that you can do it and get away with it safely.

Workers often operate under the same misguided belief.  The operator who repeatedly reaches into an unguarded machine to clear a jam believes that because this risky strategy has failed to produce an injury in the past, he or she is somehow protected forever.   Beyond asking why the machine was left unguarded, the  larger issue is how did the attitudes and beliefs of management enter into this equation?

Two Types of Behavior, One Risky Result

What’s behind the It won’t happen to me mentality?  In 1983, we identified two primary types of behavior that lead employees to deny that risk-taking will lead to injury; they still hold true today.  One is automatic, non-deliberate or unconscious behavior that results in loss of focus and is characterized by daydreaming, distractions, inattention and stress.  The second, premeditated, deliberate or conscious behavior, is demonstrated by taking calculated risks and shortcuts to achieve goals such as saving time, saving money or keeping up appearances.

In order to create break-throughs in the pervasive It won’t happen to me belief, it’s necessary to examine the characteristic behaviors, attitudes and beliefs of both management and line employees.  The challenge is to help employees at all levels increase the awareness and responsibility they need to stop denying and start accepting the consequences of their actions.

Culture Change

It takes a great deal more than task-specific training to combat shortcuts and risk-taking.  The fact that an employee chooses not to wear protective eyewear because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient isn’t just that employee’s problem, but reflects the mores of the surroundings.  Similarly, the culture of the workplace often mimics the outside pervading culture.  Employees are affected by their upbringing, schooling, past experiences with supervisors, and what they observe in the media and the world around them.

What they see too often is short sighted, risky behavior.  Supervisors or senior line workers who take pride in showing junior employees short cuts to bypass safety protocols; managers emphasizing production over safe work practices.  All of these behaviors stem from the It won’t happen to me attitude.

A Positive Process

With caring and diligence, the workplace can be an ideal laboratory for creating a different environment with different values.  Essential to the success of the process is that it be applied universally – from the chief officers to site management to the hourly employee hired just last week.  These six steps describe the process:


Initially, survey the existing culture to assess prevailing attitudes, beliefs and behaviors related to safety, health and the environment.  Strategies include confidential questionnaires, interviews and focus groups.  Uncover the dominant attitudes from both management and line employees that influence decision-making and risk-taking.

All-employee training

Our training gets behind the risky behavior by addressing the underlying "human mechanisms" that cause people to place themselves at risk.  Target skills include self-observation, self-management and interpersonal behaviors.  Learning to observe our own behaviors and the thinking that underlies, offers immediate insight into what version of it won’t happen to me is driving the behavior.  Choices for safe behavior in the moment become immediately apparent.  Leaders (managers, shop, stewards, etc.) learn communication, empowerment, coaching, attitude and behavior change and leadership skills.

Employee involvement

This process leaves no one out.  Teamwork, acceptance, participation, positive buy-in and problem solving produce a positive and lasting culture change.  It won’t happen to me is replaced by, “We’re all at risk, and we’re all responsible; take care, work together and support each other.”

Ongoing reinforcement

The lessons must be reinforced through refresher training, regular safety meetings focused on awareness, safe attitudes and behaviors, co-worker support and plant-wide communications.

Support and improvement

Leaders make the transition from safety cops to safety coaches.  They provide ongoing support, assuring the steady flow of resources, and bring the process back into alignment as necessary.

Customized observation and review

Everyone works together to develop meaningful processes for observation and feedback, support and empowerment, and actions and activity measures.

The process impacts all levels of the workplace – individuals, teams, leaders and the organization itself.  When the norms, values, beliefs, attitudes and systems of the prevailing culture changes, so too do individual and collective behavior.  Identifying the cause of “It won’t happen to me”, and shifting to “Something can happen and we can prevent every person from getting hurt, and protect our health and the environment”, is an outcome of real culture change.

A Heavy Toll

It won’t happen to me can exact a heavy toll, not only on individuals, but also on productivity and the profitability of a business.  That toll is measured tragically in thousands of deaths, millions of injuries and environmental incidents, and billions of dollars each year.  Measuring the long-term health hazards is challenging but they are there.  The key to improvement is an approach that moves you beyond the physical hazards and the unsafe behaviors of individual line and management employees toward a holistic, cultural change.

An employee does not have to get his or her hand mangled in a piece of equipment to begin believing in the possibility.  For break-through improvement, assess, train, reinforce and support a fundamental alteration in awareness, attitudes and beliefs of everyone involved, and behavior change will follow.

About the Authors
Michael D. Topf, Founder and President of the Topf Organization, has designed and conducted training courses in Executive Leadership, Management Development and other areas of Organizational Effectiveness.

Donald H. Theune, has been a Vice President and Major Project Manager for the Topf Organization since 1991.  He has spent over 30 years working with Fortune 500 Companies prior to joining Topf.

For more information on this topic, call (800) 41SAFOR or visit Reprinted with permission from Plant Safety.