The Psychology Of Safety: Why Do People Take Risks?

Posted: 2 May, 2023.

It might seem as though you have all the right processes and procedures in place to protect your employees, yet incidents still happen. An often overlooked cause of why dangerous situations occur is the psychological reasons. As well as looking at the physical hazards that may cause an accident at work, it is important to understand why people take the risks in the first place.

There are many ways in which organisations can provide employees with the safest possible working space: completing health and safety risk assessments, enforcing lone worker training and implementing safety procedures. These and similar measures can mitigate certain risks and improve an employee’s safety.

1. The desire for reward

The desire for reward refers to what is valued most. In the workplace, this refers to what is valued by the workplace culture. If the culture is output driven, producing the most work possible is the reward, even if it means cutting corners to get there.

2. The avoidance of pain

The second motivator is the avoidance of pain, although we tend to prioritise avoiding emotional pain over physical pain. This means that we may risk injury to pursue reward, which can also be backed up by the belief that we won’t get hurt. This can be particularly present where employees have taken part in risky behaviour before and haven’t been injured, so believe this will always be the case.

3. The conservation of energy

The conservation of energy is the third motivator that impacts actions. This means that following the correct protocol may be skipped as safety practices often require extra time and effort, such as retrieving the appropriate tools and wearing PPE. So, if a company culture does not prioritise safety, these practices may not be followed.

Although these factors all individually influence our behaviour, they are all underlined by one thing: workplace culture.

Workplace culture can be defined as the beliefs and values held within that organisation. This means that the attitudes held throughout the organisation reflect on every employee, impacting how they believe things should be done. For example, if an organisation prioritises productivity over safety, employees may be more likely to cut corners or take risks in order to achieve higher output, even if this puts themselves or others at risk.

Download our guide to creating a positive health & safety culture

Why do people take risks?

There are many reasons why people take risks at work, but usually, employees behave unsafely because they haven’t properly considered the danger. Understanding the reasons these incidents occur is key to creating a safer work environment for all employees. By identifying the root causes, employers can implement targeted solutions to prevent incidents. Some reasons employees may take risks are:

Overconfidence in abilities

One reason people take risks is due to overconfidence in their abilities. This can occur when individuals have been performing a task for an extended period of time and become too familiar with it, believing they are immune to incidents. This overestimation of their capabilities, such as strength or reaction time can also play a role in employees accepting greater risks. Workers may rely on their experience and knowledge to justify taking risks, but unexpected incidents can always arise.

Cutting corners 

Health and safety can be associated, by some, with creating extra work. Sometimes employees will forego safety protocols in an attempt to save time. This is especially true for employees working in environments with tight time schedules or pressure to produce a high output.

Immature culture

While workplace humour and camaraderie can be beneficial for morale and reducing stress, it’s important to ensure that the joking around doesn’t become reckless or disregard safety. An example of where workplace banter turned dangerous, as addressed by Veritas Consulting (2018), was ‘The Hard Hat Challenge’ which went viral on YouTube and social media. The challenge saw workers attempting to flip hard hats onto their heads. A few less ‘skilled’ attempts ended up striking workers in the face or head which could have caused serious injuries. Whilst it provides an important lesson about the strength of hard hats, it also displays how immature culture can lead to accidents and injuries.

Low risk awareness

Low risk awareness refers to a state of mind where an individual or a group within an organisation fail to recognise and properly respond to potential hazards or risks. It can manifest as a lack of attention or care towards safety procedures, as well as a tendency to take unnecessary risks or shortcuts that increase accidents or injuries. This can be particularly dangerous in industries such as construction or manufacturing where the risk of injury is high. Low risk awareness can be caused by various factors, including complacency, lack of proper training, and a workplace culture that doesn’t prioritise safety.


Another reason that people may take risks is due to becoming complacent and having decreased sensitivity to hazards. Workers who have performed a task successfully multiple times may fall into a state of “unconscious competence,” where they can perform the task without much thought. This can lead to a false sense of security, where the worker believes that they have done the task before without incident, so are unlikely to encounter any problems.

However, research suggests that workers in this state may not be aware of potential risks or hazards, as they are operating on autopilot mode and not fully engaged in the task. Complacent workers may take shortcuts, fail to perform at the same level of quality or become unaware of potential hazards in their environment. This can result in accidents and injuries to themselves and others. To prevent complacency, companies and employees must remain vigilant and committed to maintaining a safe work environment and avoid developing bad habits that can lead to dangerous situations.

Signs of complacency at work

Being able to identify the signs of complacency is crucial to addressing and modifying this behaviour. Here are some signs of complacency that you should be aware of:

    • Lack of attention to detail – Employees who become complacent often start overlooking small details or mistakes, which can lead to larger problems down the line.

    • Resistance to change – Complacent workers may be resistant to changes in their work routines or processes, as they prefer the familiar and comfortable routine.

    • Decreased productivity – Complacency can lead to a decline in work performance, resulting in missed deadlines and a lack of initiative.

    • Reduced communication – When employees become complacent, they may be less inclined to communicate effectively with colleagues, leading to misunderstandings and errors.

    • Increased errors and accidents – Complacent employees are more prone to making mistakes, which can result in accidents or errors that can impact the safety of themselves and others.

    • Taking shortcuts – Complacent employees may resort to taking shortcuts to complete tasks quickly, rather than following established protocols or safety procedures. This can increase the risk of accidents, errors and undermine the quality and reliability of their work.

    • Disengagement – Complacency can also manifest as disengagement, where employees become emotionally detached or disinterested in their work. This can lead to lower levels of motivation, commitment, and job satisfaction, as well as reduced creativity, innovation, and collaboration. Disengaged workers may also be more likely to take longer breaks, arrive late, or leave early, further undermining their productivity and performance.

How to improve safety culture

An organisation’s health and safety culture has a significant impact on how employees perceive and approach health and safety, influencing their behaviours and attitudes towards it. By improving the safety culture, employers can create a healthy work environment, which in turn can lead to increased productivity, improved employee morale, reduced absenteeism and increased turnover.

Perform risk assessments

Businesses should perform regular risk assessments to maintain awareness among staff members of potential hazards in the workplace and ensure that the necessary measures are in place to mitigate these risks.

When conducting risk assessments it can be valuable to involve employees who conduct the tasks on a regular basis. By involving employees, you can also gain valuable insights that help to identify areas for improvement that may have otherwise been missed.

Communicate regularly

Regular communication about risks and safety is essential to maintaining a culture of safety within the workplace. By communicating frequently about potential hazards and safety measures, employers can help to ensure that employees remain aware of the risks associated with their work and are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to work safely.

Regular communication also provides employees with an opportunity to raise any concerns they may have about workplace safety. By encouraging open and honest communication, employers can identify potential hazards and address them before they lead to accidents or injuries.

Provide resources

Employers have a responsibility to provide their employees with the resources they need to perform their work safely and to ensure safety procedures are being followed. One way to remind employees of the steps they should be taking is though pre-planning checklists. These checklists can help employees to identify potential hazards before beginning a task, giving them time to implement safety measures or call for help if necessary. To be effective, this checklist should include a list of tools and equipment that should be used, protocols that should be followed and any particular hazards to look out for.

TIP: If the checklist is digital, randomise the questions to ensure staff are actually looking at the questions and not simply following a remembered pattern.

Employers could also provide other safety resources such as posters, videos, and online training materials that remind employees of the correct procedures to ensure their safety and can be revisited at any time.

Learn from experiences

When an incident does occur, it’s vital to use this as a learning opportunity. All accidents should be documented, which can be used to reference what went wrong and identify any protocols that weren’t followed. In some cases, it may be found that there was a lack of process in place. In this instance, your existing risk assessments should be revisited and new measures put in place to reduce this risk as far as reasonably practicable.

Implement a personal safety service

It’s important that as an organisation you keep staff motivated to stay safe by encouraging a positive safety culture. Informing and educating employees about the risks associated with their roles through real life examples can be beneficial in making the risk relatable to them. Providing training in areas such as personal safety and conflict resolution will provide them with the necessary skills to have the best chance of dealing with an incident in the best possible way.

Risk takers at work are vulnerable to experiencing incidents, that’s why those working in the most high-risk environments need a robust, reliable system in place to provide them with backup in a time of need.

Peoplesafe personal safety apps and devices can provide employees with instant access to an emergency response, 24/7, no matter the incident. In the event of an emergency, an SOS alarm can be raised directly to our Alarm Receiving Centre, where an expertly trained Alarm Controller will monitor the alarm and bypass 999 to contact the Emergency Services if necessary.

Devices and apps can also be fitted with a fall detection feature, which automatically raises an alarm when it detects a slip, trip or fall. This means that emergency help can be sent right away, even if the user is unconscious or unable to call for help. In serious incidents, this saving of critical time could have a significant impact on the recovery of the injured user.

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