Making Common Sense of Workplace Safety

Making Common Sense of Workplace Safety

Two concepts common to work operations which are typically used for different purposes and reasons are safety and common sense. While seemingly unrelated, these concepts sometimes come crashing together after an occurrence, near miss, incident, or accident. The question of why an employee was not working safely is often answered with a comment on the employee’s ability to use common sense when performing their work.



Safety is defined as “freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss; the action of keeping safe.” Safety in work operations is the removal of risk.

An effective workplace safety program must contain the following core elements:
  1. Management commitment and responsibility – how managers and supervisors are responsible for implementing the program and how continued participation of management will be established, measured, and maintained
  2. Employee involvement
  3. Enforcement of safety policies, procedures, and safe work practices
  4. Adequate job planning
  5. Hazard recognition and resolution – the methods used to identify, analyze, and control new or existing hazards, conditions, and operations
  6. Investigation of incidents
  7. Training and education



Common sense is the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonably safe way. We acquire this practical knowledge and judgment through our own life experiences as well as others’, making common sense truly a shared experience. For example, while growing up, we learn not to grab onto a hot stove, either by having a negative experience and experiencing the pain ourselves, or by being told by someone else that it will burn.

It is often presumed we all possess the same level of common sense. This is where the issue comes into work operations when it is said that an employee should use common sense when working. That employee’s life experiences are unique to him/her. What if that employee never grabbed that hot stove, never walked out close to an open edge, or never worked around crane operations and knew to look up? If not, did someone else share their experiences with that employee to create “common sense”?

In January 2018, a young man, husband, and father of a three-year-old daughter in lost his life at his job in Houston, Texas when he got caught in an industrial tire shredder. It was his fourth day on the job. “Common sense” would dictate to not stick any part of one’s body into or close to a shredder while it is operating. Why, then, did this young man do so?

Does it have anything to do with intelligence? Is it possible that someone with a higher level of education would not have made the same choice that led to his death? What if that highly-educated individual had never worked around an industrial shredder?

Perhaps the young man’s life experiences led him to make choices that, at that point in time, made sense to him. These are all rhetorical questions, but the real question to be asked is, “What type of training or guidance did he receive?” Did anyone tell him, “Do not touch that hot stove or it will burn you”?



Effective and frequent training is the driving force to heighten the level of common sense among employees in work operations. Four key elements to maximizing an employee’s common sense are:

  • Providing adequate job-specific safety training that is understood by employees
  • Prohibiting supervision from allowing poor judgment
  • Creating a work environment that does not allow shortcuts
  • Holding employees accountable or challenging them when they take chances that almost result in injuries

It’s important to also teach employees to ask a few questions before beginning their work operations, such as:

  • Are conditions safe to do the work?
  • Are the methods we are going to use safe?
  • Does everyone involved with the operation know what to do, and how to do it?

Remember that what’s usually referred to as common sense is actually the aggregation of all knowledge gained through one’s own life experiences and education, and the ways that individual makes decisions as a result. Assuming that all employees possess the same level of experience and knowledge is a mistake that could cost someone their life.

For more information, ALMA members may access our full Safety Bulletin on common sense and workplace safety by clicking here (login required; if you do not have a login, click here to register).

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