What motivates people to behave in a certain way and why is it so hard to influence this? At a recent safety group meeting we discussed why people don’t always wear the PPE that’s been provided and we looked at some of the excuses regularly heard by safety managers.

As you might expect these covered the usual areas of “forgot”, “couldn’t find”, “not fit for purpose” and “uncomfortable” and they mirrored what I hear interviewing staff on safety culture assessments. But what was missing from this list is “I don’t want to” because this isn’t a very socially acceptable reason to give if you’re a good employee. However it’s probably a really strong factor in most of the decisions made about PPE wearing: “I don’t see the need and I don’t want to wear it”.

As adults we want to be treated with respect, so we don’t like being told what to do. We expect that there will be some rules of how we should all work together but when they start to affect us personally there’s a much stronger driver in a lot of us to ask “why should I?”.

Very often, the reasons for bringing in certain items of PPE haven’t been well communicated or discussed, and changes are made in a sweeping blanket-like introduction that causes people to groan about not being able to make a choice for themselves. I often hear discussions about why it’s safe to wear “nothing an inch to the right of this line” then “an inch to the left it’s unsafe and you have to put it all on…” Of course they realise they sound like teenagers arguing about going out on a school night and that makes them feel worse: “I’ve now resorted to acting like a child because I’ve been put in that position.”

Do we really allow people to take personal responsibility?

We expect people to take personal responsibility and on many sites this is written on every mirror in the toilets. But then rules and procedures are prescribed and enforced with no debate or choice, and this type of safety management often really annoys people, and leads to them feeling ‘nannied’. In some work situations the amount of actual personal responsibility is limited only to compliance with rules and reporting issues, because any decision about risk has already been decided upon and a procedure written.

Hard hat, gloves and safety glasses

Of course for safety managers, the argument is that people don’t always make good choices when it’s left to them, they forget to pick up safety glasses in a certain area, or they decide the risk isn’t that great and so they don’t bother to wear any eye protection when they should. When rules are more defined to having lots of different levels of PPE for different work areas it’s harder to enforce and gives rise to confusion like “I forgot because I was next door earlier and I didn’t need them in there etc.” So there’s no easy answer here.

An organisation’s decision to bring in rules about PPE have been discussed long and hard at a higher level of course, and much trawling has been done through injury data and trending. But this is never conveyed to the staff in any great detail to bring them onboard and get their input about the type of glasses that should be bought, so they often feel in the dark and only hear about a trial of safety glasses at the eleventh hour.

Now there are sites where they do put on consultation and extensive trialling of PPE equipment and focus groups around how fit for purpose things are. They still get staff who complain (because you can’t please everyone, as you know) but at least they’ve got some support on the shop floor from those who’ve taken part. This can go a long way to getting PPE compliance improved because they’ll champion the cause and make the usual excuses less socially acceptable and less audible and influential to others, especially new staff who’ll take on wearing the PPE without much opposition because it’s how we do it here.