Last month, on a busy Melbourne street, WorkSafe Victoria decided to perform an experiment.
Two actors, one the ‘supervisor’ and the other an ‘apprentice’, posed as electrical workers performing maintenance work. During the experiment, the ‘supervisor’ asked passersby to do them a favour and pass a live wire to an apprentice.
Staggeringly, even after they were warned that the cable was dangerous and would give the apprentice a ‘slight electric shock’, no fewer than nine out of 10 people walking down Bourke Street did as they were told.
Even after the apprentice received a fake shock and dropped the cable, the helpful passersby picked it up and handed it to him again.
The moral of the story, according to WorkSafe, is that people will take risks if you ask them, so don’t ask them.
The experiment was conducted as part of WorkSafe’s supervisors’ campaign to help demonstrate that people are willing to obey instructions, even if it means others may be harmed.
Workplace WorkSafe Operations General Manager Lisa Sturzenegger says that supervisors need to take note and be aware of this.
“It’s in people’s nature to be respectful and do the right thing, but at times doing that can lead to danger,” Sturzenegger says. “Supervisors should not be asking workers to do something that is unsafe and dangerous as there is a high likelihood they will. Supervisors need to be aware of this and ensure the people who are working for and with them are not put into a dangerous situation.”
Sturzenegger says the experiment highlights the importance of supervisors taking an active role in making sure that safe work practices are followed.
“Workers’ attitudes to safety are heavily influenced by their immediate supervisor,” she says. “If they don’t take safety seriously and if their employers don’t take safety seriously, the consequences can be horrific.”
The experiment forms part of a suite of activities WorkSafe Victoria is using to help target supervisors over the next month, including a television campaign which uses black humour to ask supervisors if they would do what they asked their workers to do.
The campaign follows a survey in which one in five supervisors acknowledged that they would ask their staff to bypass safety in order to complete a task quickly.
“The important thing to realise is that supervisors have roles that go beyond maintaining productivity and directing the day to day work,” Sturzenegger says. “While deadlines and budgets are important, it won’t count for much if someone in the team is injured.”