What is Behavioural Safety?

What is Behavioural Safety?

I’m often asked this question, occasionally by experienced safety professionals with many years in the industry.  It’s not really surprising that there is confusion as there are several different approaches to behavioural safety.  It’s perhaps best to start by asking another question.

Have you ever wondered why people behave unsafely whilst at work? Despite all the legislation to force people to comply with regulations and company procedures?  People might also have been given mandatory training and there will be signs placed in strategic locations to remind them of how to lift things properly or work at height safely and to definitely NOT walk in this specific area.

You might even be bewildered as to why people take such unnecessary risks at work, surely they know the awful consequences of their actions!  If you’ve ever wondered either of these things then the time is probably about right to consider a behavioural safety or a safety leadership programme.  A behavioural safety programme looks specifically at the human, organisational and psychological factors surrounding at risk behaviours

To properly understand any type of human behaviour, we must first ascertain all the factors and circumstances surrounding the behaviour.  These things are known as ANTECEDENTS (or Activators) and CONSEQUENCES.  The Activators are all those things that we might have put 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 & procedures and even the law itself.  Even though we might have all these activators to drive performance in safety, the truth is that they are just not very effective at influencing people’s behaviour.

Research over many years has suggested that the Activators are only 20% effective (at best) in influencing our behaviour!  Just think how things work in everyday life?  How many people do you see driving unsafely (speeding, use of mobile phones, middle lane hogging) despite all the legislation and safety films that the government have put in place?  The same kind of behaviours can be observed with pedestrians!

In safety, most organisations are very good at ensuring their ANTECEDENTS (Activators) are in place.  They’ll invest the majority of time, money and resources towards these things without realising that Activators alone are pretty useless at driving behaviour and performance!

So, it’s all about the CONSEQUENCES then?  Well yes, BUT we need to understand that there are 4 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.  All the other 3 CONSEQUENCES that are much more likely to happen are usually VERY GOOD for the individual carrying out the behaviour!

Here’s a quick video from one of our online courses that gives an overview of ABC Analysis

Let’s think about these 4 consequences for a moment.  They are:

PUNISHMENT (or the threat of punishment).  We might get hurt or killed!  Or disciplined or prosecuted even.  These are bad things that only MIGHT happen to the individual carrying out the behaviour.  Think of the driving example again, just how often do these BAD things happen when people drive too fast, or look at their mobile phones or middle lane hog?  The reality is that it’s not too often – its worse than that though, the other 3 consequences are much more likely to happen.

PRAISE (Positive Reinforcement).  It might sound bizarre, but people might well be praised 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 short cuts that might have been taken.

REWARDS (Incentives or Bonus Schemes).  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 the target, BUT not necessarily very safely!

TURNING A BLIND EYE (Just walking by)  People think that just saying nothing or turning a blind eye when they see unsafe behaviour but it’s actually a strong reinforcer of the behaviour that’s observed.

The good news is that there are better ways of doing things and a good behavioural safety programme will help your leaders and managers properly understand human behaviour and be encouraged to find much more innovative Activators and to become better at reinforcing the Consequences in the right way too.

Thats’s exactly why we developed our IOSH Approved Behavioural Safety Courses, to help organisations better influence their critical behaviours.  There are also online and blended learning options available for this course.


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