The Quick Summary
Tragic workplace accidents in the past led to new rules and regulations meant to create safe working conditions for employees. However, physical safety is only half the equation. Psychological safety is also a necessity, and if left unchecked it can lead to physical harm all the same. Workers are not safe unless they are safe physically, mentally, and emotionally.
For the full story, keep reading.
The Past Was A Nightmare
It's depressingly easy to find stories from a hundred or more years ago about workplace accidents where hundreds of workers died. Even household color dyes have regularly ended the lives of workers who dealt with them throughout history. One popular example is the case of the "Radium Girls", young women in a factory who painted clock faces using paint made with radium powder. Over a few years, many of the women became painfully ill and died due to their working conditions.
It's common to look back and say the science simply wasn't there, that we didn't know what we know now, such as the danger certain chemicals presented or how flammable some materials were. It's true that it took time to figure out what was causing all these unfortunate incidents, but sadly, there was typically an even bigger force at play: corporate greed.
In the case of the "Radium Girls", the United States Radium Corporation knew of the dangers enough to protect scientists and management, but left workers out of the loop. Even after the deaths and lawsuits piled up, the company continued what is was doing for twenty years. Worse yet, the government didn't ban the use of radium-based paint until more than twenty years after that. That's over forty years of companies being legally able to require workers to do something that science knew was fatal.
Still, the plethora of these incidents led to worker safety regulations and industry standards, such as the establishment of OSHA in the United States.
Improved Worker Safety
Cases of large companies using lobbying, misinformation, and lawsuits to hide the true impact of their profit-making machine is not a relic of the past. This still happens every day around the world. Regardless, workplaces tend to be much safer overall than they were in the past thanks to better understanding, more regulation, and a growing desire to protect workers.
Wherever you go, you can see worker safety requirements in action. You need harnesses for climbing, certifications for driving, gloves and masks, labels on bottles, the list goes on. If anything, it's more common to see workers be annoyed by the deluge of safety rules impacting every aspect of their work.
There are many aspects of what used to be acceptable in the workplace that would now be deemed inhumane. Thankfully, worker safety is a much higher priority than it used to be. Alas, that is the problem - Only half the equation of worker safety has ever been addressed.
Worker Psychological Safety
While the physical safety of workers has drastically improved over the centuries, the mental safety of workers has only just barely begun to be discussed. OSHA's mission is, "... to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers ...", but that only covers physical safety. While a company would be fined into oblivion for letting workers suffer physically, our society practically expects workers to suffer mentally at work.
Just like the avoidable fires and cancers and structural collapses of the past, the science has been aware of this harm for decades. There are few workplace requirements to provide workers with certainty. In the United States, even the job itself isn't certain. Yet we know scientifically that uncertainty causes anxiety and stress, and prolonged uncertainty increases risk for both psychiatric disorders and chronic physical diseases.
It isn't just uncertainty we need to consider. It's completely legal and often socially acceptable to shame employees whenever a manager feels like it, using verbal abuse instead of constructive coaching to berate workers for even harmless mistakes. The truth is, shame is problematic and can lead to psychological disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
It's also typically fine to overburden workers so long as some tangible rules around overtime are followed. We all know how common it is for employees to experience burnout. Despite burnout and its symptoms being medically recognized, there are still few rules in place to protect workers from being forced to go through it.
There are few objective and enforceable requirements for employers to provide their workers with an environment which is truly safe, not just physically, but mentally as well. We live in a time where when an overworked worker falls asleep at the wheel of a forklift they are safely strapped into, the blame falls squarely on their shoulders because the company technically followed all physical safety protocols.
The Future We Hope For
There's no doubt that future generations will look back in horror at the working conditions of today. We are even seeing that currently. Companies and governments must recognize that mental health IS physical health. If we truly want to protect our workers and give them safe working conditions, we need to keep them safe from mental and emotional suffering in the workplace as well. Otherwise, we'll have nobody left capable of doing the work that has already broken so many of us.
Whether you run a company or a team, if you have workers you are responsible for, try to find one thing you can do to improve their psychological safety at work. If you aren't sure what to do, ask them. Otherwise, check out a few of our suggestions for prioritizing the well-being of your workers.