Why do people commit unsafe acts?

Four basic reasons for unsafe acts are as follows:

  • Improper attitudes of the workers;
  • Lack of knowledge or skills;
  • Physical unsuitability; and
  • Improper mechanical or physical environment.

Except for reflex actions, unsafe acts are learnt acts, and can be replaced with learnt safe acts. If an employee’s learning has been inadequate or misdirected, it is necessary to retrain an employee in the safe way.

Many employees suffer injury because they are unschooled in safe behaviour, i.e.,

  • because there is a lack of knowledge of safety rules and procedures,
  • or a lack of skill in the safe execution of job tasks.

Safe patterns of behaviour must become second nature to employees, so there should be a culture of continual learning in the organisation. This will eventually make safe acts automatic.

Some employees commit unsafe acts to satisfy certain needs, and therefore an employee will try to get away with an unsafe act by using one of his own tricks of the trade. In this case the employee is trying to satisfy an emotional or psychological need.  To correct this behaviour will take more than retraining the employee.

When an employee becomes frustrated in the workplace this could result in irrational acts, often of an aggressive nature, which expose other employees to possible injury.  Some frustration may also arise from off-the-job conditions, such as domestic circumstances. These frustrations are beyond the supervisor’s control, although they too can lead to unsafe acts.

Another cause of unsafe acts is the employee’s preoccupation with matters that have nothing to do with his work, for example financial worries can cause undue stress.

To summarise, the causes of unsafe acts could be:

  • Lack of knowledge and inadequate skills as discussed above
  • Motivational factors
  • Difficulties of inattention
  • Perceptual difficulties

The last three aspects are discussed in detail below:

Motivational factors

The following factors can influence the employee positively or negatively:

Display of Manhood

Some injuries and accidents on duty are caused by the fact that a man tries to perform an act in the “hard way” to demonstrate his manhood.

Job competency

Every person wants to be skilled at his job. This is a significant reward in itself and usually results in job satisfaction. However, a show of “expertise” may degenerate into getting away with hazardous actions. In this case, the supervisor will have to step in to bring the situation under control,

Higher earnings

Some employees want to earn more money, and to prove themselves worthy of promotion and higher earnings. It is here that these employees take chances to increase their output just to impress their seniors. They could endanger their lives in this attempt.


Some employees may endanger their lives just to retain their jobs, particularly in an economic depression when jobs are not freely available. Physical safety measures could be ignored if the employee becomes desperate not to lose his job.

Supervisors must change the employee’s ideas of how job security can best be achieved. They must make it clear that job security and economic security are inextricably linked and that it is only by safe working habits that job retention/ security can be achieved.

Seeking approval of others

New employees could want to seek the approval of their peers. They may perform an unsafe act in the work-place to gain such approval. In most situations, employees will probably see greater advantage in doing the job the way their work group does, even at the risk of displeasing the supervisor and endangering their own lives. The desire for acceptance becomes a risky venture if unsafe acts are among the work habits sanctioned by the group because new employees may absorb these habits in order to be accepted by the group.

Difficulties in Inattention

Sometimes an employee manifests temporary inattentive behaviour. Some of the causes could be as follows:

Temporary Periods of Stress

Whatever their ages, all employees are at times subject to temporary periods of unusual stress

If accidents are to be prevented in such periods of tension, it is necessary to assist employees to cope with their times of travail, at least to the extent of providing safeguards and helping with solutions which are within the supervisor’s control.

Effect of Personal Problems

Inattention could in many instances be attributed to personal difficulties such as domestic circumstances which cannot be shed by employees as they daily enter the work‑place. It could be helpful if the supervisor became a good listener during these periods, although it is undesirable for the supervisor to become intimately involved with the personal life of the employee. If an employee is enabled to talk out a problem with a sympathetic and understanding listener, he or she could see it in a different and more constructive light.

Effect of Job related Conditions

Sometimes a number of accident ingredients are present which are beyond the control of the employee. These pre-existing conditions could be hazardous. The employees may be unaware of these hazards, and their reaction to the situation, if they become aware, may be trial-and-error. If their response does not work, emotions may be aroused. The momentarily blind act or emotional act is often an unsafe act. The continuance of adverse job conditions can have an ominous and frustrating influence on employee conduct. This frustration may manifest itself in aggression, rigidity and childishness. These frustrations could also manifest themselves through unsafe acts.

Distractions related to Work‑place Location and Job Monotony

Work‑place locations can lead to unsafe acts if they subject the employee to competing demands, e.g., where workstations are near the toilets or a cafeteria. Monotony can also be troublesome as it often results in self‑induced distractions. Supervisors should be on the lookout for any form of distraction.

Communication the Key to Inattention

The supervisor should communicate meaningfully with the employee.

Sometimes the source of frustration can be rectified by the supervisor.

The supervisor must try to pinpoint the problem clearly. Sometimes the difficulty may have to be resolved jointly by the supervisor and the subordinate. At other times, the problem MUST be resolved unilaterally by either the employee or the supervisor.

Perceptual difficulties

It could happen that the reason for an unsafe act is as a result of perceptual failure.  Perception means the ability to see, hear or become aware of something through the senses.  It is also a way of understanding something.  Perceptual failure means that the worker sees, hears or understands the facts wrongly.

This can happen because the worker has been bombarded with too much information at one time. There are too many signals reaching the worker and this causes a wrong response or a late response.   Because of a lack of perception, the worker can react in an uninformed or emotional manner; the worker could also react to a compelling signal without awareness of counter-indications

These kinds of difficulties are present in many industrial jobs. Workers have to adjust to the safe sequencing of their work and this takes time. There may be dangerous hazards of which the worker is unaware.

Supervisors should ensure that the perceptual requirements of a job are not unreasonable. All jobs should in the beginning take account of the perceptual limitations of human beings. As part of job training, supervisors should emphasise the perceptual aspects of a job, and make the safety requirements for a job as clear as possible so that the employee’s perceptions are realistically specific to the situation and not based on wants and prior experience alone.

The Supervisor must make sure that the employee can pick up all the signs of a job in time and that the employee can make the correct response and choice to the signs when counter indications occur.

For this purpose, lecturing (counselling) is insufficient; there must also be practical coaching. Employees must also be protected against incorrect performance during the training period so that they are not injured by unsafe acts.


Diane Swarts
Diane is a SHEQ Practitioner with 10 years experience as a Safety Officer with working knowledge of ISO 18001, 9001, 14001 management systems as well as the OHSACT 85 of 1993, Construction Regulations 2014, MHSA No 29 0f 1996, and Regulations.