Why do we need behavioural safety and why is behavioural safety important? We have guarded and maintained our equipment, trained our staff, and improved our working environments. But accidents are still happening – so what do we do next? We need to start thinking about what actions and behaviours in our workplace cause or contribute towards accidents.
As far back as the 1930’s the industrial psychologist, Herbert William Heinrich, identified that accidents are mainly caused by people. He demonstrated his point using a line of dominos to show the chain reaction between a person’s background / behaviours and how this causes unsafe situations and actions, resulting in loss.
Objectives of Behavioural Safety
The major objective of an effective behaviour-based safety process is to make safe behaviour a habit. It is said that approximately 70% of what we do in a typical day is completed on automatic pilot or by ingrained habits. So why don’t we use this powerful driver to change our working habits to make them safer?
Unsafe behaviour is habitual in most teams. They have done something the wrong way for so long that they are not conscious of the behaviour or of its potential consequences. We often hear phrases such as “We’ve always done it like this” or “I’ve don’t this job for 30 years – why change it now”, and whilst that may true, does it automatically mean that it is inherently safe?
Why is Behavioural Safety Important?
The major objective of behaviour-based safety is to replace the unconscious unsafe behaviour that has come from months / years of unchallenged behaviours with unconscious, or automatic, safe behaviour — or safe habits. Whilst this sounds easy, people are creatures of habit and it often takes longer to “unlearn and relearn” than it does to learn something initially. The HSE has some helpful tips on this topic which should be read in conjunction with this article.
Example of Behavioural Safety at Work
This can be demonstrated in a simple example we recently encountered. Workers had for years been walking across the back of the goods inwards area of a warehouse/factory. There were often large vehicles reversing and people still took the short cut through the vehicle route rather than walking around it.
We initiated a behavioural-based safety approach by:
- Engaging with the workforce to find out why they did this, and dangers they perceived
- Showed them evidence of near misses where people narrowly escaped being hit by a vehicle
- Remarked the defined walkways
- Provided briefings, toolbox talks, posters etc to promote the message that walkways must be always used
- Led by example by managers always using the paths
- Introduced observation studies whereby everyone took a turn at watching at key times throughout the day (5 -10 minutes at a time) and reporting back how many people were seen using the walkways and how many were not cooperating
- Fed back to all teams the results, rewarding the successes whilst following up on the persistent non-conformers
Within a month of actively following this process, there were almost zero incidents where people were seen walking through the short cut.
Behavioural Safety Process – The starting point
Whilst it is essential that staff at ground level have full involvement in a behavioural safety strategy, it must start at the top. Without senior management buy-in the initiative will quickly fall down or be overtaken by other business priorities. Remember that staff follow not only the verbal commands that their leaders make but also their non-verbal actions. This means in practice that staff follow what they think senior managers want.
A senior manager can give good rhetoric about safety behaviours needing to change and even to specify the behaviours they want to change. But unless the senior managers actively do this themselves, the whole strategy will fail.
An introduction into behavioural safety training for executives and directors will be needed so they understand the business case for behavioural safety, the process for introducing a behavioural approach and the benefits it can bring. They will need to appreciate the time and resource commitment as well as their own emotional and behavioural commitment to make it a success.
Here are some simple steps to follow:
Step no 1:
Define what your business means by behavioural safety and what it wants to achieve by implementing a safety behaviour strategy. This should be achieved by a combination of senior leadership and observation of the rules / procedures that are routinely broken. It’s also important to review accident, incident and near miss reports to ascertain what behaviours caused or contributed towards them. Directors can then agree the behaviours they want to change, the desired key outcomes, resources needed and timeframe.
Step no 2:
Identify the key behaviours you want to address. Be careful at this point not to become too enthusiastic and change too much too quickly. Start instead with a few (2 or 3) key behaviours and embed these first – it’s not what you start that counts, but what you finish!
Step no 3:
Develop a communications plan with marketing/ communications, HR, Learning & Development personnel (as relevant to your organisation). Ensure it includes simple language to explain:
- What you want to achieve.
- The key behaviours that you wish to change/improve.
- Why this is being introduced i.e. the benefits to the employees and managers,
- Initiatives that will be introduced the coming months to achieve these objectives and everyone’s contribution in meeting these.
- Worker contribution / role in making the change.
Step no 4:
Introduce a combination of initiatives to promote the change. Examples include:
- Observation studies where everyone takes turns in watching other teams/colleagues to identify how often the safe behaviour is followed or breached. This is easy to implement and with little or no cost. There are several other benefits which are too detailed to write about here, but you can contact us if you would like to talk through in more detail.
- Regular inspections – these are more formal checks of workplace activities and conditions, andshould include the behaviours you want to change.
- Regular tool-box/ bite size training sessions to remind staff of their contribution to the change process, include progress made in these sessions.
- Rewards and positive reinforcement for those individuals and teams who respond well and show improvement. Healthy competition / league tables also help to reinforce the message as no one likes to be last, and this type of reward costs nothing more than time to display.
- Inclusion of behaviour in risk assessment templates
Step no 5:
Define key methods to monitor and measure improvements. These may include a variety of methods such as reduction in accident/damage incidents, as well as results of observation studies / inspection and other checks that are implemented as part of the improvement programme. If targets for improvement are set at the outset it provides a framework by which you can monitor and track your progress.
Step no 6:
Provide regular feedback. This will include focus on positive behaviours and potentially reward for those individuals or teams who have shown the most changed behaviours. Positive reinforcement highlights your commitment to improvement and helps to reward your teams and increase motivation to continue working on changing long-lived habits. For those individuals/teams who are persistently non-cooperative there will need to be additional measures (further communication, training, involvement and even discipline) to ensure the message is clear, understood by all, not a temporary “trend” and the organisation actually means it!
Step no 7:
Adapt, modify without losing your consistency.
As new initiatives develop there will undoubtedly be the need to tweak your initial ideas, based upon the initial results, ongoing feedback and when your managers and teams provide initiatives for different ways of doing things. Getting buy-in from your teams is essential if you want to achieve engagement as often the best ideas come from the proverbial “shop floor”. After all, they are the experts at what they do as they do it day in, day out. Don’t be worried that modifying a procedure means that you have failed. Positive action and positive intention aids positive outcomes and if this approach is taken then people will slowly learn to trust that doing something different isn’t because you were failing in the first place.
If you liked this blog post and think your organisation may benefit from it an introduction to behavioural safety, please visit our course page: “Introduction to Behavioural Safety“