How does conformity influence construction safety?
Humans are very social beings, and our behavior is frequently influenced by others’ beliefs and actions. The behaviors of others that we respect or relate to is often the biggest influencer of our own behavior, especially in group settings such as workplaces. In this post, we will explore how the innate human trait to imitate others influences construction safety.
Recently, psychologists have been very interested in researching the human tendency to conform to the beliefs and behaviors of others. Several occurrences have contributed to this increased interest, namely: the rise of major religions, atrocities committed by people against each other, and increasing political polarization. The interest of this post, however, is purely practical, and views conformity from the perspective of workplace safety.
What drives conformity?
What causes us to conform to the beliefs and behaviors of others? Psychologists have identified two distinct reasons. First, the beliefs and actions of others convey information to us about how we should behave in certain situations. Most of what we know and believe is not a product of firsthand knowledge, but what we have learned from others. We particularly imitate the behavior of those that are very confident, are someone we trust, are someone we believe has special expertise, or even seem the most similar to ourselves. These people are the biggest influencers of our behavior.
The second distinct cause of conformity is described by Cass Sunstein, a renowned psychologist, as “the pervasive human desire to have and retain the good opinion of others.” This is found to be particularly true in groups that have strong bonds of loyalty and affection, where people will go to great lengths to preserve the acceptance and approval of others.
Conformity and workplace safety
Many aspects of workplace safety are influenced, directly or indirectly, by conformity. To see an example, we need not look any further than the current beliefs and actions towards COVID-19 vaccinations, especially how they affect the workplace. A brief internet search will pull up hundreds of articles about those who support or reject mandatory vaccinations at the workplace.
Conformity can be a double-edged sword.
Conformity can work both for and against workplace safety. Conformity can often influence employees to practice safer behaviors if they are demonstrated by those they respect. As an example, people are much more likely to wash their hands if they see someone else do it. However, if a leader in the workplace often exhibits unsafe behavior, those that report to them will be more likely to partake in those behaviors as well.
How do we use conformity to increase construction safety?
Although some conformity can be detrimental to workplace safety, we can also use it to our advantage to help increase construction safety. First, we need to identify the influencers within our organizations. For instance, foremen are very likely to be influencers because they are in positions of power, and employees often respect them. Have conversations with influencers to ensure that they are following safe work practices and displaying workplace safety to other employees. Their behavior will lead the way to defining safe behavior as a core characteristic of the group.
We must also fight social influence in group settings that leads to unsafe work practices. One way to overcome this is to establish safety rules. Rules provide cover for individuals who follow them and don’t conform to the usual group behavior, even if the rules are not enforced. Another method is by sharing the story of employees’ safe practices with the rest of the crew. Doing so not only provides the crew with something to conform to but also reinforces the identity of the group's safe behavior.
Even if it is not done consciously, humans rely on each other to make decisions and imitate the behavior of those they respect and spend time with. Although it can be double-edged, conformity can be any safety manager’s tool to improve workplace safety.