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When keeping quiet has consequences

Why don't we speak up more often? And if company safety relies on it, what should we do about that?
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An older man collapses on the pavement. Passersby nervously glance towards him, but because no-one seems to be reacting, everyone walks on by.

A big machine at work is behaving strangely but stopping everything to have it checked means major expense and delay. Everyone wants to get home on time, so you and your concerned workmate decide it'll be okay for now. Last time someone said something about equipment, she got no end of staffroom bullying for being 'soft'.

Your colleague has been driving for a full shift when the boss asks him to complete one more task 'on his way home'. You know he's already had a couple of beers and are concerned about his ability to get home safely. You know that if you say something, it will mean a lot of extra hassle for your colleague, and the boss will be frustrated with you.

Have you ever noticed something that concerned you slightly, but no-one else seemed to be bothered, so you figured it was okay to wait until someone else spoke up? Or been aware that there was an issue, but you would get a lot of grief if you 'made waves'. Relax, we've all been there. We're human!

Humans don't enjoy speaking up, standing out from the crowd, or looking silly. We don't like causing our colleagues to have to work harder, or have to change something to be more safe. It's so common, there are names for these phenomena:

Bystander apathy - where people tend to not offer help in emergency situations, especially if those around them aren't helping either. Read this fascinating article for some of the experiments conducted.

Groupthink - Where people start thinking 'as a group', interested in preserving unity rather than having their own opinion and risk rocking the boat. Here's more on that.

Social acceptance/vs rejection - The lovely feeling of inclusion and belonging, versus being questioned, alienated, rejected. More here.

We know people panic and drive away from car crashes and crimes. We know Health and Safety issues go under-reported. And we know these things are very normal, human things to do. But we also know the consequences of these behaviours.

As an employee: Not reporting/intervening puts you and others at risk, helps encourage a culture where people stay quiet, and may eventually cause you to lose heart and go and work somewhere else.

As an employer: Your employees not reporting issues risks human injury, lawsuits, losing the opportunity to fix something before it becomes a major, and of course the loss of time, money, and potentially staff.

Health and safety rules time and time again make it clear that for both employees and employers it's not good enough to say you didn't know about something. They know what a hugely important resource staff are. Imagine staff as numerous safety checkers, aware of multiple issues, and constantly monitoring safety. Isn't that something worth utilising and encouraging?

A new WorkSafe campaign called 'Use Your Mouth' focuses on encouraging workers to speak up about health and safety. It calls the mouth 'a great bit of safety gear' and we think the videos are actually downright hilarious.

What we also like about it is that it doesn't focus only on workers speaking up - it also looks heavily at the employer's responsibility to make it possible to do so. Jude Urlich, WorkSafe’s General Manager of Strategy and Performance says, 'Creating working environments where workers feel safe and are encouraged to speak up about risks is critical to improving health and safety outcomes in New Zealand.'

And that's where we think the spotlight should be. You know all the reasons why it's tough for employees to speak up (our human-ness being one of them), so let's make it possible, easy, even expected - that it happens.


Employers need to look carefully at the reasons people don't speak up, and do their best to remove these barriers.

This fantastic study looked into why people don't report Health and Safety injuries and near-misses, and the top reasons were the following:

  • Accepting pain as part of the job
  • Not wanting to be labelled a 'complainer'
  • Believing home treatment would be sufficient
  • Not being sure if the injury was work-related
  • Fearing the loss of future or current jobs
  • Not being able to afford time off without pay to see a doctor
  • Not wanting to lose out on the safety incentive for no lost work time

They also found that a report was much more likely to be made if the employee spoke to a co-worker first, obtained their support, and then was able to approach management with this support.

So, employers: Remove barriers to speaking up.

  • Don't accept a culture of staunch silence, rather encourage an open and sharing one
  • Model a dedication to safety yourself, and make sure all your supervisors do too
  • Make sure there are regular check-ins at all levels. If workers see their manager once a month, they're much less likely to mention something they're concerned about than if they have regular contact.
  • Implement an easy reporting system - try offering an anonymous option
  • Reassure staff that there will be no negative consequences of speaking up
  • Get employees involved in Health and Safety policy development, so they have a say right from the beginning

WorkSafe have this to say about the duty to engage employees in the process:

"All businesses should have planned, well known ways to engage with workers and support their participation in Health and Safety matters. Things are likely to work better when you have a mix of formal and informal ways for workers to contribute."

This is about more ways how to do that, and here's an interesting bit about about workers rights and responsibilities in terms of speaking up.

What do you do? What else could you do? We're keen to hear from you.

Because the potential consequences of your employees staying quiet and not intervening, are just not worth the risk.

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