The Fear "Work-Around"

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How to get better reporting

The most effective individual in your company may be the employee safety committee member who has gained not only your trust but has done the miraculous job of bringing together the often-bickering functions of your organization.  They can bring together union and management like my dear friend Tim Meier at Marathon Refining.  They can bring together maintenance and operations, no small feat.  And they can drive out fear the way Charlie Daniels beat the Devil out of his fiddle (sorry to my international readers, a inside U.S. joke there but I need it for the following paragraph).

FEAR is the Devil of safety programs just like TRUST is the human SAINT (I personally prefer Saint Francis).  If your team had open, honest reporting of hazards and risks you’d be able to target your team’s considerable brainpower into butt-kicking solutions… but you don’t… dang that devil (PG version).

Its absolutely true that management actions can reduce fear, but as any leader trying to change a culture knows, you need those small wins to reinforce the trust your workforce can demonstrate when they open up and start to report.   You need the Fear-Buster (“Who-ya Gonna Call?”…. Sorry, another U.S. analogy).

I am learning so much from a railroad I work with.  Their journey, one they call “courageous”, is one focused on trust; a journey challenged by its century-plus-old history.  But that’s where you find the best Fear-Busters.

I met a group of People-Based Safety employee “facilitators” who, well, facilitated employee teams promoting and using peer-to-peer observation and feedback to improve the lives and body-conservation of fellow employees of the railroad in an area in the U.S. larger than most countries.  One of these Saints told me this story.

If I’d been working on the railroad all the livelong day (another U.S. quip – so sorry) I’d come in contact with these switches that I’d have to pull, actually ‘yank’, to move rails that switch tracks from one line to the other.  Exposed to use and weather, these switches can stick and otherwise get quite cumbersome.  They call these “Hard to Throw Switches”.  I tried one… they are hard to throw. 

This facilitator’s team looked at their anonymous behavior observation data and they found that throwing switches was a major area of risk.  Old men like me know the consequences of musculoskeletal injuries.

The irony is that the company has a method in place where any employee can report a “Hard to Throw Switch”.  Such a report would create an “Out of Service Action” where the switch could not be used until repaired.  But, this facilitator explained (probably from experience), submitting an Out of Service Action could result in a really pissed-off supervisor or manager, making your life miserable because taking a switch off-line means slowing down rail production….an illusionary no-no according to operational metrics.  I say “illusionary” because… well just read on to find out how safety reporting HELPS production.


So it was rare that anyone reported Hard to Throw Switches causing the Out of Service Actions even though the behavioral observation data showed excessive risk around switch throwing.  The employees knew… fear repressed.

Enter the Saint.  This facilitator went one-one-one to his peers in this rail yard and told them “We need to know… tell me which switches (in this small country) are defective.  I’ll submit the Out of Service Action under my name instead of yours”.  Note here dear readers that the leaders of this railroad had empowered this young facilitator Saint to do this. 

You already know the results but for the record Out of Service Actions increased over 300%.  That small-country service unit now knew where nearly every defective switch was… and there were a lot.

Now one would think that submitting 3 times more maintenance actions would create a ton of friction with the maintenance staff that had to go fix all this stuff.  Enter the Saint who has fostered good relations, as a fellow employee, with all the functions in his/her efforts to build the safety culture.  In this case he was able to go to the maintenance staff to mitigate the switch problems (and he made a big deal about their efforts back at the yard).

And now the kicker.  The maintenance folks now knew where to target their efforts.  And because of the targeted attention to these switches (across this small country) they were also able to do additional regular preventive maintenance on switches and track in heretofore-unknown problem areas.  Get my drift.

Preventative maintenance is the oil that keeps big industry rolling.  Employee reporting because of saintly actions led to targeted preventative maintenance.  In the end, general equipment failures dropped and production went up.  Oh, and the risk of throwing a switch dropped off a precipitous.   Just guess what happened to Out of Service Actions?


Create the space for these Saint to thrive...

And get those “wins”…

To build trust…

And create the fear work-around. 

Timothy Ludwig’s website is where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own.  Dr. Ludwig serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC.  If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at


Good Article! We have the same problem with “hard to turn valves” in the tank farm. The work group discusses them in their meeting daily so they know which ones the need 2 people on. Then when it get so too hard to manage they put it on a hit list to be repaired. We have a new department manager that has told them he doesn’t want to hear it. We will change his culture over time.

(Name removed for obvious reasons)


Thank you so much for this article it was just what I needed. It makes so much sense, and yet, it is the basic and simple things we tend to overlook.

I would like to share with you some information I discovered while on site doing training and coaching employees.

Management continued complaining about employees NOT REPORTING injuries and I tried to make sense of this, and as all of us do, decided fear is the contributing factor or even the main reason. I had a discussion with some of the employees and to my surprise discovered the following:

We grow up with bumps, bruises, minor cuts and contusions because it is part of growing up and little kids are rough and clumsy – so that is part of growing up. Not once did Mom or Dad rush you to the ER when you had a minor bump on your arm, leg or even your head sometimes – they fixed it with a band aid and a kiss …. Off you go playing again with only a few tear drops spilled. This becomes the way we handle these minor bruises or injuries and that is the way we teach our children.

Now ….

You enter the workplace and all of a sudden all these insignificant injuries (remember childhood) HAS to be reported and employees cannot understand why they cannot quickly fix it – as they traditionally used to do while growing up. It was not an issue then why is it one now (they were only kids then that could not treat the injury but NOW they are adults and can actually treat the injury? I realised employees believe they can fix these insignificant small or little injuries and does not see the significance if not reporting it. As a matter of fact they believe they are doing the right thing by handling or treating the injury themselves. We however expect them to understand the importance of reporting the injury for various very good reasons (benefitting them), BUT do we actually explain why it is so important or do we make it seem as if we don’t want to be seen as a company NOT reporting injuries????? The understanding and bringing together the logic of insignificant injury VS a company that reports everything no matter how big or small just does not make sense, it’s kind of stupid if you analyse the logic according to the employees.

We as employers forget about the most important factor of it all – Actively Caring – don’t report your injury because we are a company reporting everything …. REPORT IT BECAUSE WE CARE ABOUT YOU and should you have any further consequences of your injury or should you need more medical attention. 

I discovered that here people do not understand why they have to report these little things while we expect them to do so. Their living conditions and poverty does not allow them to run to a hospital, clinic or Doctor for every bruise and bump, they have to deal with it themselves. 

Do we really understand the activators contributing to NOT REPORTING injuries???? I am just asking.

Connie M Engelbrecht




A profound observation Connie.

The key is "closing the loop" and show the employees how reporting these minor injuries help them in the longer time frame by allowing us to fix hazards, buy better PPE, or institute better training, guards, etc...

If they see the product of their behaviors they may be reinforced for reporting even minor injuries.


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