Safety Culture Blog

It's Not My Car

I get asked to visit companies and diagnose why their behavioral safety program has “lost steam” or never got off the ground to begin with.  Inevitably, I find the whole program is run by the safety department and few anointed safety enthusiasts who do the observations or supervisors, who have observations cards to complete on top of mounds of other paperwork. Employee involvement is nonexistent.   This may seem the most reliable way to do behavioral safety, but it’s creating an undesirable effect inside of the operation. 

I got a story for you that will make this point. 

I was in a rush.  My flight was an hour late arriving in Chicago and I had a 40-minute drive to get to a safety speech I was giving that was an hour away. And, I still had to pick up my rental car - so I was stressing as I got off the huge rental car company shuttle bus.  With rental papers in hand I found the car on the lot, put on my safety belt and headed for the exit. 

This was no easy task.  The massive labyrinth of a parking lot was segmented with roads and I had to trust that the “exit à” signs would get me out to civilization.  After a number of turns I finally drove up to a “T” intersection. The exit booth was to the right of me and beyond that was freedom.  I eased into the right lane to yield and turn right.  But I had to stop because one of those huge airport shuttle buses (scientific name TryceraBus) covered with the rental car company’s logo had the right of way as it passed ahead of me toward the exit.

While I was waiting for this TryceraBus to pass, another identical  TryceraBus drove right up beside me… and I mean right beside my driver’s window.  I literally could have rolled down the window and pat the axel of the 4’ diameter wheel of this thing.  It was unnerving.  I remember thinking to myself “I hope he sees me… he does this all the time”. 

The first bus passed and the way was now open to proceed. I was taking my foot off of the brake when I heard the low belching of the bus next to me.  Out of the side of my eye I notice TryceraBus’ big wheel turn toward me and start turning.  The tire began crushing into the car I was in! It first destroyed the side mirror in an impressive explosion of glass.  The tire’s next destination was the body of the car, which started crushing just as easily.

I honked and waved my arms at the oblivious driver who I could see through the glass door panels.  He looked at me with wide eyes and stopped in time to prevent further damage.

Now… do you think I was pissed off?

No, It was not my car!

Startled, yes; a bit shaken, yes; but I wasn’t in any real danger.

The fact is that it was their car,

in their parking lot,

being crushed by their bus. 

To be honest with you… I thought it was kinda cool.  How many times do you get to sit in a car being slowly crushed?  I then looked at the despondent driver and thought “this is going to suck for you” and finally smiled at the realization that I may get an upgrade to a luxury rental for the inconvenience (I did!).

When employees are not active participants in the safety program, involved in its design, ongoing implementation, and evaluation in some way, well, frankly… it’s not their car.  When an employee gets hurt or disciplined you often hear employees say:

It was THEIR car equipment,

Involving THEIR parking lot process,

being managed by THEIR bus people. 

No “WE” in sight.

So when a management-led safety program starts to derail, through lack of budget, disappearing leadership support, or just plain complacency, employees may think its kinda cool (yes, the same people the program was designed to help!).  Rumors fly, observation cards get sabotaged (see my Anatomy of Pencil Whipping article in Professional Safety) and become a platform for personal gripes, jokes and ribbing will be heard… “told ya so”… “flavor of the month.”  In the end, employees (supervisors and leaders too) may actually enjoy seeing it get crushed.

Back to the rental car lot… what if I was in my car and a bus started crushing the side of MY car? Would I be pissed!  Darn toot’n I would be.

I often think about what I would have done if I were in my own car that day on the rental car lot and a bus pulled up that close to me.  I imagine that instead of simply assuming that the driver of the bus had seen me, I would have perhaps honked and tried to get his attention.  We do that kind of action to protect the things we value.

It’s the same with safety programs and its based on a straightforward psychological principle that Gordon Allport (1937) talked about 70 years ago; what Deci and Ryan (1985) famously called “Self Determination” in the social psychology literature.  It’s a concept that Scott Geller (2002) wrote about in his epic book, The Participation Factor, and a concept I’ve researched for two decades and discussed in my own book (Ludwig & Geller, 2000). Modern Management Psychology research cites data on “Engagement” that has been shown to correlate highly with safety outcomes (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002; Ludwig & Frazier, 2012). 

Sun Tzu talked about the same principle in his epic book, Art of War, written over 2000 years ago.  In it, he tells his readers the way to defeat your enemy most effectively is not by force of arms -  instead, it is through inviting them to take part in your conquests.  They will not destroy what they helped build (see The Rule Mill blog posting)

Consider the pride of ownership an employee-owned safety program.  First, lets note something important.  This does not mean turning over your entire safety programming over to employees.  There is always a need for professional safety competencies and management coordination.  I own my car but I didn’t engineer it (I’m not that smart), I didn’t build it (I’m not that resourceful) and I don’t repair it (I’m not that skilled).  But I did pick the make and model along with the color and accessories, I maintain it, and I choose how to use it.

Employees don’t have to engineer, build, and keep track of your safety systems.  They just need to do things like name it, develop the content (e.g., the behaviors that go on observation cards), customize the process so it make sense “on the ground”, review the data for risks and share the trends, and suggest interventions to reduce risk and hazards.

Employees are right people to involve in this way because they know firsthand where hazards exist, where at-risk behaviors occur, and where attitudes affect safe work practices. 

Case in point: Marathon Petroleum Company LP, Michigan Refining Division, invited a colleague and I to their Detroit site to understand why they have one of the best-in-practice behavioral safety programs according to the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (you can read about them at  We were met at the gate by Radwan Dagher, an hourly employee.  Once there we interviewed members of their Circle of Safety (COS) team… all employees.  We saw how they managed their program, how they led a large number of contractor safety representatives, how they used their data to shape training, and how they interacted with site leadership to direct attention and resources.  It was there I saw true ownership.

This was a Teamsters Union workforce.  While some unions advise against Behavioral Safety to their members, this outpost of the Teamsters were not only advocates, they were OWNING it. 

It was their car and if anything threatens it they get pissed.  The evidence was there. When anything threatened the program or the safety of the workforce (like new construction that brought hundreds of contractors on-site) the COS teamed with management to bring to bear resources and hundreds of hours of effort to protect and succeed together.  It was their car so they proactively made it work, they worked with leaders to grow it, and they waxed it up real well because they were proud.

Just like a fine Detroit-made Mustang! 

References cited:

Allport, G. W. (1937). The functional autonomy of motives. American Journal of

Psychology, 50, 141–156.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self determination in

human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

Geller, E. S. (2002). The participation factor: How to increase involvement in

occupational safety. Des Plaines, IL: American Society of Safety Engineers.

Ludwig, T.D., & Geller, E.S. (2000). Intervening to Improve the Safety of Delivery Drivers: A Systematic Behavioral Approach.  Monograph.  Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 19, 1-124.

Ludwig, T.D., & Frazier, C.B. (2012).  Employee Engagement and Organizational Behavior Management.  Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 32 (1), 75-82.

Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., & Hayes, T. L. (2002). Business-unit level relationship

between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes:

A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 268–279.