Plant & Works Engineering
Time to reveal all
Published:  07 May, 2014

Ivan zytynski, from safety shower people, reports explores how psychological factors can play a role in the poor usage of safety showers and explains how some product features can help to eliminate these barriers.

Safety showers and eye baths are essential first aid equipment in minimising the damage caused by contamination of workers with harmful materials. They are usually simple to operate, will deliver the right amount of water at the right pressure and when installed at the appropriate location with correct staff training, will provide good protection if spills occur. The reality is though, despite following all the rules and standards, certain barriers prevent effective usage of safety showers.

Good practice, in the event of a chemical spill, is to remove all contaminated clothing. However, for most people getting naked in view of work colleagues would not be high on their “to do list”. Compromising one’s privacy and the fear of public nudity should not be underestimated when thinking about the psychological barriers of needing to use a safety shower. However, if someone is in absolute agony from a serious acid spill then it’s likely that social taboos will be put aside fairly swiftly.

However, most acid spills are not that extreme, or at least do not appear to be initially. The psychological barrier to NOT strip naked is strong enough to prevent most people from doing so, even when clothing is contaminated with substances they know are very dangerous. The logical part of the brain that understands the risks and dangers is easily overridden by the emotional, illogical part of us. Unfortunately, failure to remove all clothing can result in substantially worsening the damage sustained by a contaminated individual.

Not wanting to be seen as a fool or disruptive

Most accidents with dangerous materials are caused by handling errors. Either the correct protective equipment was not used in the first place or other procedures were not followed. Inevitably some blame will be attached to the person who has an accident, especially in a highly efficient, well run work place with a culture that prides itself on excellence. Whilst this culture is excellent at preventing accidents from happening in the first place, it can sometimes create a barrier to correct action being undertaken when they do. Also, safety showers can be messy, disruptive devices splashing water over a working environment and potentially soaking though to other areas. When operated they will often affect others, bringing unwelcome attention to a potential error and possibly causing annoyance to co-workers and managers who’s work is disrupted.

This could be exaggerated in highly efficient manufacturing situations operating to very tight deadlines where the perception of blame and possible scorn of management and co-workers, results in a psychological barrier to using safety equipment. If the spill seems minor it may be enough to try and wash out the spill in the sink, or to simply remove the contaminated over garments. Clearly this lack of correct procedure can be highly dangerous to the person concerned and possibly others.

Should a contamination incident occur a logical thought process could be:

“Do I risk a bit of embarrassment at turning on the shower and disrupting the work of my colleagues?”

Or - “Do I save myself the embarrassment but risk my long term health?”

In reality people will often act illogically and the social, emotional pressures often override logic completely.

Seeing the safety shower as non-essential

Safety showers are one of those pieces of equipment we hope are rarely used, if at all. Despite any amount of good training, staff may regard the safety shower as something taking up space, so the area becomes cluttered, or it simply isn’t even noticed. Unfortunately this attitude could be potentially dangerous over time.

Matters are worse with tank showers as the enclosed nature of the shower lends itself conveniently to becoming a makeshift storage area, or outdoors the covered, protected nature of tank showers makes them perfect for a cigarette or tea break! This ad-hoc “re-purposing” of safety showers could be disastrous if an accident did happen as there could be an increased risk of harm due to delays in treatment but also the litigation risk would increase as it’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure the shower is accessible.

So what can be done?

Good training is always the key to overcoming these barriers but more than that a genuine culture of safety should be adopted. This means safety concerns are paramount within the working culture of the business so that it becomes more of a taboo to breach safety protocol than to strip down completely when entering a safety shower.

Achieving this cultural change is often difficult and health and safety professionals may struggle, meaning the lofty goal is never quite reached. So are there other more immediate, easier to achieve solutions?

Rather than working to overcome deep rooted psychological barriers there are steps that can be taken to work within the constraints of these barriers and these product features that may help:

Panelled showers

It may seem a bit of a luxury to enclose a safety shower in panels to give privacy but given the above analysis, it could prevent injury. If the investment in panels means that workers will be more inclined to remove all contaminated clothing as per procedure, it could save lives, or at the very least reduce harm.

Catchment sumps

A catchment sump under the shower or eye bath will help prevent run-off liquid from causing disruption to other workers. If combined with side panels then all the water should be contained, minimising the effect on others. It may well be the case that such product features are desirable due to other considerations such as contamination worries or the proximity of water sensitive equipment.

Platform activation

A simple solution to inappropriate “re-purposing” of showers is the inclusion of platform activation where as soon as any weight is placed on the panel under the shower it activates. Showers fitted with these devices have a better chance of remaining clear from debris, as the temptation to use them for other purposes is removed.


The key to making a health and safety policy actually work is always creating the correct culture. However, creating a culture where safety is the primary focus of all workers is often difficult. Human psychology is an odd thing and it often means that even with good, regular safety training the message is ignored. The psychological barriers of human behaviour discussed above are very real and it’s a dangerous deception to think that “no one would be so silly” and thus ignore them. Including the product features highlighted can ensure that the product “works with” the existing psychology of workers and thus creates a safer environment for all staff.

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