Mike Rowe is an American actor primarily known his work on the Discovery Channel Series ‘Dirty Jobs’, where he is shown performing difficult, strange, disgusting, or messy occupational duties alongside the actual employees. Over the course of several series, Mike has shadowed and replicated work activities including bat cave scavenger, worm dung farmer and roadkill cleaner.

From 2004 to 2008, the Dirty Jobs crew visited many hazardous sites, from crab boats to crocodile infested swamps. They sat through scores of mandatory safety briefings, becoming intimately familiar with all the basic protocol - lock out tag out, confined space, fall hazards, respiratory precautions, PPE, checklists, etc. Through it all, trained professionals were on hand to remind them, that their safety was the top priority. Safety First.

For a while, it worked. They managed to deliver three seasons of Dirty Jobs with no accidents. Then things started to unravel. Stitches, broken bones, sprains, contusions, falls, a damaged eardrum, third degree burns and many near misses. The job sites were no more dangerous than they’d always been, but the mishaps among the crew were skyrocketing. Then one day, a man was killed while they were shooting in a factory near Pittsburg. He was crushed by the door on a giant coke oven. In the break room, where Mike was told of the accident, a large banner said, “We Care About Your Safety!” That got him thinking about the unintended consequences and the dangers of confusing compliance with real safety.

According to the theory of Risk Compensation, people subconsciously maintain their own level of “risk equilibrium” by adjusting their behaviour to reflect the changes in their surrounding environment. Thus, when the environment around us feels unsafe, we take fewer chances. And when that same environment feels safer, we take more. Accordingly, if companies and Safety Professionals repeatedly tell us that our safety is their priority, could that tend to make us feel safer and in turn, be liable to take more risk, therefore making us…less safe?

Recognising this, Oil Industry giant Shell has instigated a program called ‘Chronic Unease’. A concept introduced by Professor James Reason over 20 years ago, Chronic Unease refers to the experience of discomfort and concern about the management of risks. It is a healthy scepticism about one’s own decisions and the risks that are inherent in work environments. It implies that, in a workplace context, the antonym of safety is complacency.

The challenge, however, I see with Chronic Unease, is that it is probably unsustainable. It is possible (and even desirable in acute situations) to be vigilant for a while, but in the long term, becomes psychologically wearing, increasing the risk of violation.

So, what can we do to steer a middle ground between abrogating personal responsibility for safety and being constantly alert? In 2009, Discovery agreed to air a Mike Rowe one-hour special called Safety Third, where he talked candidly about mistakes he’d made on Dirty Jobs, and the unintended consequences of putting Safety First. He argued that many compulsory Safety programs discouraged personal responsibility in favour of Legal Compliance.

One way the engender this is to genuinely empower front line employees to ‘call the safety shots’ themselves. One company which I know applies this philosophy is RasGas (recently merged with QatarGas), a Qatar based LNG producer. Operators are encouraged to act on any discomfort they feel when on shift, to stop production if necessary. Managers are directed to fully support such decisions, while harshly penalising any instances of violations (where the correct plan was known but another followed), however minor.

Perhaps the best way to keep ourselves and others safe at work, is to leverage what’s known about human behaviour and motivation.

safety first