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Behavioural Safety: a Proven Weapon in the War on Workplace Accidents?

October 1999
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 [1]), such as:

What behavioural safety is not about!

Contrary to many other types of safety improvement initiatives, behavioural safety is not concerned with:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Select project team or steering committee to implement and run the system.
  3. 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.
  4. Develop workgroup specific observation checklists that include the behaviours gleaned from step two.
  5. Train personnel from each workgroup in observation techniques, and how to provide feedback to people.
  6. 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)
  7. Ask each workgroup to set a safety improvement target, using their baseline average as the comparison starting point.
  8. Monitor progress on a daily basis and provide detailed feedback to each workgroup on a weekly basis.
  9. 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:

What are the expected benefits?

The outcomes from a well-planned and implemented behavioural safety system nearly always lead to:

  1. Lower numbers of accidents or incidents, near-misses and property damage.
  2. Improved levels of quantified safety behaviours.
  3. Reduced accident costs.
  4. Increased reporting of defects, near misses, accidents, etc.
  5. Increased skills in positive reinforcement.
  6. Greater workforce involvement in safety.
  7. Better communications between management and the workforce.
  8. Ongoing improvements to Safety Management Systems.
  9. Improved Safety Climates.
  10. Greater 'ownership' of safety by the workforce.
  11. More positive attitudes towards safety.
  12. 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.


[1] Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Lischeid, W. E. Assessing the quality of behavioral safety initiatives. Professional Safety, 1999, 44, (4), 31-36.

© 1999. Dr Dominic Cooper, is dedicated to the promotion of behavioural safety to reduce injuries and accidents in the workplace, in all industries and countries around the globe.

The aim of is to provide a free, independent and neutral knowledge resource about behavioural safety for all interested parties, be they academics, consultant practitioners, users of behavioural safety, those considering the implementation of behavioural safety techniques in their workplace and any other interested parties.