Mind the Gap:
Overcoming the Biggest Hurdle in Safety
By Carl Potter
One of the biggest mysteries in hazardous work is why well-trained
people do not follow their company’s safe work practices. After
years of research, the answer is becoming clear. Consider the
following statement: “The gap between knowing and not doing is much
bigger than the gap between knowing and not knowing. “
The “knowing – doing” gap boils down to something quite basic. The
gap between knowing and not knowing is easily overcome through
training and education. It’s tough to overcome the gap when people
know something, yet they don’t do it or apply it.
It’s not hard to see examples of the “knowing – doing” gap in the
workplace. Consider the group of oil company executives who
couldn’t figure out why workers blame the company when injuries
occur, or the group of leaders in the utility industry who are now
supervising the people they worked alongside. Unfortunately, the
gap becomes all too real when investigating a workplace fatality in
which the victim failed to follow basic safe work practices that
could have easily prevented the incident.
If you’ve ever been to London and used the underground transit
system, you’ve no doubt heard the recorded voice loudly proclaim,
“mind the gap” to remind embarking and disembarking train passengers
about the space between the platform and the train. It’s as if we
need to have the voice to remind us to mind the gap between worker’s
knowledge and their actual performance.
It’s essential that leaders recognize, and then do something about
the gap. Think about your own workplace and answer the following
1. What evidence of a gap in worker knowledge and application
exists? Often leaders don’t look for the gap and therefore don’t
know that it exists.
2. How are supervisors trained to deal with situations where
workers aren’t accurately applying safe work practices?
that supervisors are often people who have come from the workforce
and may not be trained in how to handle such situations.
3. When is the last time your organization’s safe work practice
training curriculum was reviewed for relevance and interest?
Outdated and uninteresting training can create apathy toward
learning and will lessen the opportunity for appropriate application
of safe work practices.
As you consider your own workplace and find that you have room for
improvement, the four guidelines provide some steps you can take.
1. Involve a cross-section of employees in a review of your
current safety rule documentation. Ask them what problems they know
of with clarity or application of stated rules.
2. Get a copy of your safety manual or accident prevention book
and a yellow highlighter. Mark every instance of the words “shall”
and “will”. These words, while similar, carry different weight.
Shall means “without deviation” and the word “will” generally
indicates a guideline. Can workers reasonably follow the rules that
contain the word “shall”? Be sure that you ask the involved
3. Use a safety expert to review the OSHA rules that are
applicable to your industry. Does your safety manual include all
these rules and, more importantly, are your employees aware of the
proper application of these rules and the safe work practices for
4. Establish employee-management safety councils in your
organization. Employee participants represent their peers and have
access to management to discuss safety concerns. When management
demonstrates their commitment to listen to and address issues
promptly, such groups can be highly effective.
Do whatever it takes to ensure that everyone throughout your
organization knows the applicable rules and how to apply them to
their work so you can have a workplace where everyone can go home
every day to their families without injury. It’s all about
application. It’s just that simple. One of the most important jobs
of a leader – whether a crew leader or a company president – is to
guide people to apply appropriate knowledge. Take time to first
consider if you’re applying what you know about safety, then look
around. Ask yourself what you can to do help others apply what they
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