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Behavioural Safety

Words - Darren Sutton

April 06, 2023

“Many organizations and safety professionals are still unsure exactly what Behavioural Safety really is.”

How can we influence behaviour at work to maximise safety performance?

The answer lies in taking a broader view, listening to great leaders such as Nelson Mandela (Madiba), and learning from sporting greats like Andreas Iniesta, Steph Curry and Jonny Wilkinson.

Behavioural Safety is a critical component of success for many thriving companies across a diverse array of sectors. Despite this, many organizations and safety professionals are still unsure exactly what Behavioural Safety really is. There is evidence of confusion regarding the terminology used in the fields of behavioural science, human factors and ergonomics both anecdotally and in the scientific literature.

I’m concerned that this confusion inadvertently causes missed opportunities for tangible and sustainable improvement in safety performance around the world.

Have you ever wondered why people behave unsafely whilst at work?

Are you bewildered as to why people take such unnecessary risks at work, when surely they know the awful consequences of their actions? There’s legislation in place to force people to comply with regulations and company procedures, workers often receive mandatory training and supervision, and there is likely signage placed in strategic locations to warn of dangers or remind people how to lift things properly, or work at height safely.

Performance – the product of failure or success?

Failure (or ‘human error’) in the workplace, and the occasional catastrophic events that will inevitably follow is well documented. However, the term ‘Human Error’ is in itself often misleading. Most would agree that human behaviour plays a major part in workplace accidents and injuries but closer scrutiny may reveal that many of these behaviours were not actually ‘errors’ at all but deliberate actions towards a specific performance outcome.

In safety we call these deliberate actions that lead to such incidents ‘violations’. But try to convince the person who quickly clears a blockage on the production line or manages to find a short-cut to quicken-up a process that they are failing and you’re likely to be greeted by a confused look. They won’t consider their actions to be erroneous at all, they intended to do those things and what’s more they probably believe that their leaders and their organization would want them to do these things too – so in their eyes at least, they are certainly not ‘failing’!

Understanding behaviour

To ensure a behavioural safety program has full effect we need to take a broader view of the factors that drive human performance. This includes knowledge of three very different (and sometimes conflicting) areas of science including behavioural, organizational and performance psychology. It also requires consideration of the environmental, technological and ergonomic factors that influence human performance.

To understand behaviour, look at the circumstances around the behaviour.

To fully understand any human behaviour, we must ascertain all the factors and circumstances surrounding the behaviour – rather than just looking at the behaviour itself. All humans are different, so it’s pointless to just look at the behaviour of a specific individual in isolation.

Nelson Mandela understood this perfectly. To change the world and make it a better place he could not do it one person at a time. The great Madiba understood that people are different and he would have greater impact if he could influence the circumstances and the environments surrounding the behaviours that he sought to change.

People are Different

In our consulting experience – over twenty-plus years working in more than 120 countries – when it comes to compliance in safety, people tend to fit one of three categories.

The Compliers

We’ve all met these people.

They just don’t break any rules. They wouldn’t dream of breaking the speed limit whilst driving.

Their Values and Belief systems are set up for them to obey the law and any rules or procedures.

The In-Betweeners

In reality, most people sit right here.

And when it comes to safety rules, sometimes they will comply and sometimes they don’t.

People ‘swing both ways’ and it’s interesting to ascertain the many factors that determine which way people may swing in any given situation.

The Rebels

And we know these people too!

These people almost purposely break the rules and procedures just to see what will happen!

To see if anyone has the moral courage to challenge them and possibly even to experience the consequences of their actions.

In our consulting experience – over twenty-plus years working in more than 120 countries – when it comes to compliance in safety, people tend to fit one of three categories.

“Many organizations and safety professionals are still unsure exactly what Behavioural Safety really is.”

As easy as A-B-C

When analysing behaviour, the surrounding circumstances or factors are referred to as Antecedents (commonly called ‘Activators’) and Consequences. The Activators are all those things that are in place to encourage people to do things safely before they actually commit to a Behaviour – such as training, information films, signs, rules, company policies and procedures and even the law itself. Even though we might have all these Activators to drive performance in safety, the truth is that these things alone are just not very effective at actually influencing people’s Behaviour. But research suggests that Activators are only about 20% effective in influencing people’s behaviour!

Just think how things work in everyday life: How many people do you see driving unsafely (speeding, using mobile phones, and hogging the overtaking lane) despite all the legislation, signage and safety films that our governments may have put in place? Similar behaviours can be observed with in the workplace, too.

Give them a nudge

When it comes to workplace safety, most organizations are quite good at ensuring their Activators are in place. They invest the majority of their time, money and resources towards these things without realising that Activators alone are pretty useless at driving behaviour and performance – unless we create innovative Activators that really grab the attention of workers. Improved communication and coaching skills, as well as an understanding of Nudge Theory (see my previous articles in SHEQ Management magazine) can be much more effective at predetermining a behaviour.

Here’s a simple example. Next time you give a presentation, instead of asking “Are there any Questions?” try asking “So what questions do you have?” as you look directly at the attendees. The reaction you’ll get is likely to be very different. As most of the audience will start to formulate some sort of question in their head – which is in itself a pre-cursor to encouraging them to start to think differently and adapt their Behaviour. That’s because you’ve created an effective Activator and nudged a specific Behaviour.

Our own “inner voice” or Self Talk is also a factor in determining our behaviour.

Performance v Results

What’s the consequence?

So, is it all about the Consequences then? Well yes, but we need to understand that there are four different types of consequences to our actions and only one of the Consequences are actually only potentially bad for the individual carrying out the behaviour. The other three Consequences that are much more likely to happen are usually good news for the individual carrying out the Behaviour – and their organization too.

So let’s think about these four consequences for a moment. They are:


We might get hurt or killed, or disciplined or prosecuted, or fired. These are bad things, sure, but they only might happen to the individual carrying out the Behaviour.

Think of the driving example again, just how often do these bad things actually happen when people drive too fast, or look at their mobile phones?

The reality is that it’s not very often.


It might sound bizarre, but people might well be praised or encouraged by their line manager or supervisor for conducting unsafe Behaviours, even if it’s unintended.

"Thank you so much for getting things done quickly this week" without realising the safety short-cuts that might have been taken. 

Positive reinforcement like this makes repeating the Behaviour more likely.


If people are set targets or deadlines and incentivised to achieve them, they’ll probably do just about anything they can to ensure that they hit that target, but not necessarily very safely!

Incentive schemes in any aspect of performance are extrinsic motivators and a lazy way of trying to inspire people.  They also very often lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes.  Just ask anyone who has worked in a heavily incentivised sales environment and they’ll tell you what people do to make sure the target is hit each week, month or year.

Turning a ‘blind eye’

People think this is not actually a Consequence at all but it’s actually a very strong reinforcer of the Behaviour that’s observed. 

Just imagine if someone you admire was with you when you might be doing something wrong.  If they just ignore your actions and say nothing, or just walk on by, what does that feel like to you? 

What will you be encouraged to do next time?

So, what is behavioural safety?

Well, it’s much more than compliance and safety signs, rules and procedures, It’s all about creating a culture of care rather than compliance and a WANT to mindset rather than HAVE to.

If you’re serious about achieving safety excellence, your organization can’t get there unless there is a shared understanding in the middle and upper tiers of leadership of the core aspects of human performance and psychology as outlined in this article.

Behavioural safety is – in a nutshell – about understanding what drives your most important assets and how to take better care of them for superior performance outcomes. If that’s something that you aspire to, then a Behavioural Safety Leadership program is right for you.