Posted: February 19, 2005
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Article SummaryThis assessment of whether safety professionals should use fear appeals quotes me in favor.

Scared Safe?

ISHN Ezine (Industrial Safety & Hygiene News), January 21, 2005

Dear Subscriber,

In this edition of ISHN’s e-zine we take a look at what consultant Robert Pater describes as the “do-it-or-else” approach to selling safety – “long a default in the safety profession,” he says.

Does fear still sell?

“I don’t agree that OSHA isn’t scary anymore,” says attorney Glenn Demby. He points to OSHA’s enhanced enforcement program “dragnet” – a “killer” for exemplary companies since violations at any facility count against the whole company, he claims. And Demby argues the Labor Secretary wants to “pierce the corporate veil” and make it easy for OSHA to hold officers and directors personally liable for OSHA violations.

“These are arguments that a safety director could use to play on the fear factor,” says Demby.

A can of worms

But let’s face it, most safety and health pros (and we surveyed about 80) take a dim view of shock therapy for safety’s sake.

Scare tactics are crap, cheap, lazy, transparent, self-serving, short-term, sophomoric, hokey, cruel, exploitative and manipulative, say our survey respondents. And they’re just warming up.

Trying to shock execs into getting religion opens a can worms and puts you on the hot seat, according to most of the pros we queried. It’s good for getting egg on your face and kicked out of board rooms. Scare tactics can backfire – a rude shock to your credibility and your career prospects. Plus, they just don’t work, say most of our respondents.

Fear does nothing to further EHS goals. It’s not sustainable. Battle-weary execs will either filter out your warnings, dive deeper into denial, or become resentful and resistant. The same goes for employees, say professionals.

Anxious to reduce the number of hand injuries, an international oil company produced a poster depicting the hand of one its employees whose four fingers were severed on a drilling platform, recalls Robert Pater. To make sure employees got the point, the severed fingers were laid out a few inches from the rest of his hand.

Employees got angry, says Pater. Angry at management for trying to exploit their co-worker’s injury in such a gruesome manner.

Heads in the sand

Still, what would you do if your company faced a potentially devastating risk and had its collective head in the sand?

Say your owners have just acquired a plant in the south that manufactures medical devices such as syringe plungers and rubber stoppers for vials. After an audit, you report the plant faces serious vulnerabilities to dust explosions. Maintenance workers report accumulations of one-quarter to one-half inch of polyethylene dust, as fine as talcum powder, above suspended ceilings. The National Fire Code limits combustible dust accumulations to 1/32 of an inch.

But your management team doesn’t get it. Operating the rubber-making process is new to them. They don’t understand the explosive properties of polyethylene powder. And regulations do not require control measures.

Would you hand out newspaper clippings describing in graphic detail how a phenolic resin dust explosion at an auto insulation plant in Kentucky killed six workers, injured 38, and rattled buildings 25 miles away? Or how an aluminum dust blast at an Indiana auto parts maker killed one employee and burned two others?

What would you do? (For investigative reports on these dust explosions, including the West Pharmaceutical tragedy used in the hypothetical case above, go to the Chemical Safety Board web site

Maybe you would bring in Charlie Morecraft – “the only person who has been able to pull off scare tactics with seasoned execs,” according to Mark Hansen, the national director, Risk Control, Oil & Gas for The St. Paul-Travelers.

Morecraft’s enduring popularity shows the fear factor still sells in safety. For $5,000–$10,000 (according to the American Speakers Association), Morecraft will recount his 1980 accident at an Exxon refinery that seriously burned over 45 percent of his body. Or you can buy his video for $595.

Morecraft, on his web site (, says he speaks to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. “Charlie leaves a lasting impression,” says one testimonial. “People are deeply moved and motivated to never again take safety for granted,” says another.

Don’t tell Charlie scare tactics are cheap crap.

A trigger mechanism

Richard A. Clarke doesn’t believe that, either.

You can find his stab at scaring the United States into doing something about ongoing security lapses in the January/February 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly ( Clarke, a former counter-terrorism expert in the Clinton and Bush II administrations, writes a cover story in the form of a fictional lecture given on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

It recites, in graphic detail, a long list of terrorist acts occurring against the U.S. between 2005 and 2010. How’s this for putting cattle prods to the national consciousness:

A RV loaded with an ammonium nitrate device blows the face off a Vegas casino. Four assassins disguised as security guards murder 300 shoppers at the Mall of America. Suicide bombers blow up tourists waiting in lines at SeaWorld and DisneyWorld. Coordinated subway and train bombings shut down commuter and national transportation systems. Two executive jets loaded with explosives slam into chlorine gas plants. On the day before Thanksgiving, four 767 airliners are brought down by portable, heat-seeking missiles. A massive cyberattack of worms shuts down hospitals, nuke plants, Wall Street, and sends everyone home from work (even worst-case nightmares have a silver lining).

The purpose of the article is to say “we know that we have a number of vulnerabilities, and we’re not doing anything about them,” said Clarke in a January radio interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” (

“My experience in several administrations was the way you got people’s attention was to make a future possibility vivid,” explained Clarke.

“If this article has any effect at all, it will be on causing people to ask questions about why this or that system hasn’t been secured. We have not addressed the fundamental weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the United States. There is a need for a dialogue now, before additional attacks, about what we are willing to do in terms of increasing security.”

A safety and health pro who sees significant facility risks being ignored could make the same argument for using a dose of shock therapy with execs. The time for serious discussions about “how much safety do you want?” is before a facility blows sky high.

Otherwise, you get caught in what risk manager Gary Rosenblum calls “the cycle of catastrophe – complacency, catastrophe, analysis, reorganization, improvement, plateau, cost-cutting, complacency, catastrophe, ad infinitum.”

Knowing is not enough

“It’s not enough to identify the big scare,” says Rosenblum. Safety and health experts who argue there is indeed a time and place for scare tactics all agree on this crucial point.

“Knowing what the problem is is not the issue,” said Clarke in his radio interview. “The issue is are we doing enough to reduce (the vulnerabilities)?”

Psychologist Scott Geller argues fear appeals work well – when you follow through on your initial shock and awe scenario. You must do more than intimidate.

First, a realistic scare tactic tells an audience they need to do something to avoid a negative consequence, explained Geller in a 2001 ISHN column ( Second, give execs or workers a straightforward strategy to avoid that scary consequence. Finally, you must convince them they can do it – they have the time and tools and skills to successfully execute the plan.

Follow-through is essential, say risk communication experts Peter Sandman and Jody Lanard. “It is not so terrible to gently, firmly, and kindly tell people scary things, especially while telling them how they can help and be helped,” write Sandman and Lanard in an article posted on Sandman’s web site (

People usually don’t over-react to honest information about high-magnitude, low probability risks, which usually define worst-case scenarios, according to Sandman and Lanard. Particularly when you explain options to prevent such risks.

Timing and how you deliver the bad news also can influence the kind of reaction you’ll receive. “It’s all in the presentation,” says psychologist John Kello.

You better be right, it better be a significant issue, and you better not go to the mat too often, says consultant Tom Cecich.

Here’s how Cecich once delivered a “pronouncement of doom”: The plant manager of a facility in North Carolina had rejected a $300,000 proposal for a new fire detection system to replace one partially inoperable. This was shortly after a fire in a North Carolina chicken processing plant killed 23 people.

“I went for a private drive with him on his smoke break and told him that given the heightened state of awareness in North Carolina, if any fire-related event occurred at his site, it was likely that he would incur personal liability – and he probably wouldn’t look good in stripes. He approved the funds immediately.”

Contributing success factors, according to Cecich: His personal credibility, his previous positive track record with the plant manager, “and the fact I only took that approach once with him.”

Talk it out

Still, be ready to deal with the fear you arouse, advise Lanard and Sandman. Every audience is different. Talk through the emotions and reactions you’ll trigger. If people go numb, or ballistic, after hearing your “scarenario,” put the feelings on the table for discussion.

After all, what you want to produce with a fear appeal is dialog leading to decisions and a plan, as Clarke explains. What’s willing to be done to harden safety defenses? Where is the line drawn with safety investments?

It won’t always be a sane discussion, so bring your flak jacket along. Write Sandman and Lanard: “You are up against every defense mechanism in the book. You will be criticized, maybe massively so.” You might be accused of trying to get a bigger budget, more staff, or look like a hero.

But consider the alternative. “There is only one thing worse than being criticized for ’unduly’ frightening people – and that is being criticized for failing to warn people,” write Lanard and Sandman.

Dave Johnson is the ISHN Ezine (Industrial Safety & Hygiene News) editor.

Copyright © 2005 by ISHN

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