Where To Put the Port-a-loo is a Hazard!
I was on a worksite last year and came across this port-a-loo! Nothing too unusual or out of place considering it was a construction site. This toilet was put in this position as an afterthought. They had erected the office area with male toilets out the back near the car park. They forgot to provide female toilets so quickly hired this one and placed it at the front door of the office, right on the corner of two roads. Invariably the women chose to use the male toilet blocks out the back.
No one saw this as a problem but couldn’t understand why it wasn’t getting used. The positioning of this port-a-loo communicated so much to me about this worksite.
Now I wouldn’t have questioned this a few years ago. I would have seen the problem – no female toilets – and found a similar solution, and thought nothing more of it. Today it’s different for me. Today I understand so much more about how our environment communicates to our unconscious that I find it difficult not to see the implications of just placing the port-a-loo wherever it can fit.
What are we normally ‘trained’ to look for when we go onto a work site? With traditional safety it’s all about a physical hazard so we look for the typical issues of housekeeping, work at height, operating plant and equipment, RCDs or testing and tagging and the like? But we’re not taught beyond that.
Why does this matter? Why does putting the port-a-loo in a specific place matter? There has been much research (Bargh, Moskowitz, Claxton, Norrentranders, Plous) done in the area of how language, environment, symbols and social groups can affect a person’s behaviour or decision making unconsciously. The way things can be seen or placed or even kept, do matter. The problem is many of us are not even aware of how these things are influencing our decisions unconsciously. This is critical. This is what we should be getting taught as safety and risk professionals and managers. We need to understand how the work environment can greatly impact on how well the job gets done and more importantly on managing risk.
Have you been onto a work site where you think everything is running smoothly, people are getting along, and work’s getting done? Then go onto a very similar worksite and it’s the complete opposite. There are many unconscious influences at play that we don’t realise and we’re not taught. If we knew this we would change things. We wouldn’t be always focussing on the physical hazard. We would also look at what our environment is communicating to the workers, to visitors, to contractors etc.
I’ve seen it many times on construction sites. We only need to take poor housekeeping for an example. What is this saying unconsciously to people working on this site? Many of us know that a construction site (small or large) is quite a dynamic and diverse working environment. If workers come on site and ‘see’ a messy work site it ‘tells’ them that it’s ok to be untidy, that the rules are relaxed and it’s ok to not follow the site rules. Poor housekeeping unconsciously reflects the culture of this worksite. A worksite that has good housekeeping practices reflects a caring culture and professionalism and people will change their behaviour accordingly.
So next time you go out to do a site inspection, put the hazard checklist away, have a look around and see what you think the environment is ‘saying’ to your people.