Behavioural Safety: a Proven Weapon in the War on Workplace Accidents?
Dr Dominic Cooper, C. Psychologist, AFBPsS MASSE MIIRSM FIOSH FRSH
Since the early 1990's behavioural safety has fast become an established weapon in the war on workplace accidents, as its use has helped many companies to dramatically slice through their accident plateau, something that hitherto could only be dreamed of. A vast body of scientific research testifies to the effectiveness of behavioural safety initiatives across a wide range of industries in many countries Many companies, for example, have experienced 40-75 percent falls in their accident rates within six to twelve months as a direct consequence of implementing a behavioural safety system.
What is behavioural safety?
Behavioural safety is the systematic application of psychological research on human behaviour to the problems of safety in the workplace. Given that 96 percent of all workplace accidents are triggered by unsafe behaviour, most people will be aware that reducing accidents and improving safety performance can only be achieved by systematically focusing upon those unsafe behaviours in the workplace. For example, ducking under or climbing over assembly lines to reach the controls; not holding the handrail when ascending/descending stairs; not putting equipment away after completing a job, etc., are all unsafe behaviours in the direct control of the person engaging in them, and therefore can be targeted for improvement via a workforce driven behavioural safety initiative.
Although it could be argued that all attempts to improve safety are behavioural safety initiatives, any safety improvement process that calls itself a 'behavioural safety' programme will comprise of particular essential features (see Sulzer-Azeroff & Lischeid, 1999 ), such as:
- Significant workforce participation;
- The targeting of specific unsafe behaviours;
- The collecting and recording of observational data via peer-to-peer monitoring;
- Decision-making processes are data-driven only;
- It involves a systematic, scheduled, observational improvement intervention;
- It involves the provision of regular focused feedback about on-going safety performance;
- It requires all levels of personnel to be involved;
- It requires, demonstrable, visible on-going support from managers and front-line supervision
What behavioural safety is not about!
Contrary to many other types of safety improvement initiatives, behavioural safety is not concerned with:
- Aversive control as its ethos is primarily predicated on positive reinforcement or encouragement for engaging in safe behaviour.
- A sole focus on reduced accident rates as the primary outcome measure.
- Decisions made on the basis of dogma or prejudice. Behavioural Safety decision making tends data driven from analyses of accident records, observation, etc.
- Disciplinary actions for accidents/incidents which lead people to not report near-miss incidents or accidents.
- Top-down implementation by line-management alone. Behavioural safety systems are based on a consensus between management and the workforce.
How do you implement a behavioural safety system?
Introducing and implementing a behavioural safety system consists of a nine-step process. In essence these steps are:
- Seek workforce buy-in prior to implementation, by conducting briefings and informing everybody what behavioural safety entails and what it means to them in practice.
- Select project team or steering committee to implement and run the system.
- Analyse your accident / near-miss records for the previous two years to identify that small proportion of unsafe behaviours responsible for the lions share of your company's accidents (Normally conducted with Applied Behavioural Analytic techniques). At the same time you should look for system faults associated with each incident, as it is known that these lead people to behave unsafely. Those identified need to be addressed via your normal management systems.
- Develop workgroup specific observation checklists that include the behaviours gleaned from step two.
- Train personnel from each workgroup in observation techniques, and how to provide feedback to people.
- Establish a baseline (i.e. monitor behaviour in the workplace for about four weeks to discover the current average levels of safe behaviour in each workarea)
- Ask each workgroup to set a safety improvement target, using their baseline average as the comparison starting point.
- Monitor progress on a daily basis and provide detailed feedback to each workgroup on a weekly basis.
- Review performance trends to identify any barriers to improvement.
What are the known implementation problems?
Implementing a behavioural safety system is not easy and can be fraught with problems. Common problems that arise include:
- Lack of workforce buy-in: This normally comes about because the management team, without consultation, has imposed the system on the workforce.
- The observation checklists are not targeting the accident causing behaviours, and the behaviours have not been defined with sufficient precision: This usually occurs because the accident records have not been analysed correctly, and people's perceptions about their 'pet hates' have been allowed to dominate.
- The behaviours on the checklists are not acceptable to the workforce, as they have not been consulted about them: Workforce consultation at each and every stage of the process is vital.
- The observation checklists focus on unsafe condition's not unsafe behaviours: The observation checklists are not workplace audits of unsafe conditions, they are behaviour sampling checklists. Sometimes, however, it is proper to monitor temporary unsafe conditions created by unsafe behaviour (e.g. hoses left lying across walkways).
- The percentage safe scores do not reflect reality on the 'shopfloor' because people are trying to convey an optimistic picture of safety in their workarea:
- People's names, where they were working, what was said to them, and their responses are recorded when observed as being unsafe: For people to willingly engage in a behavioural safety system, it must be psychologically safe for them to do so. The observations must be anonymous so individuals cannot be identified.
- People are disciplined for not behaving safely in accordance with the behavioural items on the observation checklists: Punishment /discipline has no place in a behavioural safety system as this will undo everything that the system is trying to achieve.
- Safety improvement target-setting meetings are not conducted properly: Common problems include insufficient preparation; the sessions are held in noisy locations; there was insufficient time set aside for people to express their views; it is held at an inconvenient time meaning that people are unable to attend; and one or two vocal individuals hijack the sessions to air their grievances about what management has traditionally done or not done in relation to safety.
- Observations take place at the same time everyday: The observation sampling should be undertaken at random times throughout a week. In other words, the timing of each day's observation must be unpredictable.
- There is no standardised process / procedure for people to hand in their completed observation checklists to those running the project on a daily basis: This means that the data with which to provide feedback becomes lost or mislaid.
- There is no computerised means to calculate and analyse the observation scores: This means the data analyses have to be done by hand. It is a cumbersome process to do it this way, and it also affects the quality of the feedback given to the workgroups.
- A lack of regular weekly feedback sessions, because people say they do not have the time: This can create a lack of workforce buy-in, as they perceive line management does not view the system as an appropriate weapon to reduce accidents.
- A lack of ongoing management support: Management do not see themselves as a part of the problem, and therefore do not see what they have anything to offer. They could and should allow people time to conduct observations, encourage people to behave safely, facilitate the target setting and feedback sessions, and help to implement any remedial actions by aiding with paperwork and providing any necessary resources.
What are the expected benefits?
The outcomes from a well-planned and implemented behavioural safety system nearly always lead to:
- Lower numbers of accidents or incidents, near-misses and property damage.
- Improved levels of quantified safety behaviours.
- Reduced accident costs.
- Increased reporting of defects, near misses, accidents, etc.
- Increased skills in positive reinforcement.
- Greater workforce involvement in safety.
- Better communications between management and the workforce.
- Ongoing improvements to Safety Management Systems.
- Improved Safety Climates.
- Greater 'ownership' of safety by the workforce.
- More positive attitudes towards safety.
- Greater individual acceptance of responsibility for safety.
Thus, although it must be stressed that behavioural safety is not a panacea to cure all safety ills, it does have a lot to offer to the safety world.
 Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Lischeid, W. E. Assessing the quality of behavioral safety initiatives. Professional Safety, 1999, 44, (4), 31-36.
© 1999. Dr Dominic Cooper, www.behavioural-safety.com
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