B is for behavioural safety

If each time a mouse turns left in a maze it gets a treat, and each time it turns right it gets an electric shock, it will learn to turn left more often. This is the basis on which behavioural safety works. 

Image credit: ©iStockphoto/aroas

But people are more complicated than mice, and the issues of what rewards good work practice and punishes bad are complex. Poor behavioural safety programmes treat people like lab mice - a reward for being seen to do the right thing, and a punishment for being caught doing the wrong thing.

A key process is represented as ABC. B is the observable behaviour, which could be anything that an individual does (or fails to do), writes or says. A is the antecedent, the stimulus or event that prompted the behaviour - policies, method statements or equipment design, for example. A traditional approach to dealing with workplace behaviour was to change the antecedents: write firmer policies, provide more training, instruction and supervision, display lots of signs. However, as with the mice, we need to understand C, the consequences of the behaviour. The mouse knows only that it is treated or punished - in many cases workers know that, though they might be punished if they are caught behaving unsafely, if they don’t finish the job on time because they delay for a safety check, they will definitely be punished, even if it is only a rebuke from a supervisor.

The consequences of not wearing safety goggles may depend on the behaviour of the supervisor who ignores the omission and the colleagues who laugh at the wearer for being soft

Some of the consequences are inherent in the behaviour. If cheap safety goggles are provided, the worker weighs up the consequences of wearing them: I will be uncomfortable, but I will be protected - with the consequences of not wearing them: I will be more comfortable, but I could lose an eye in an accident. If the likelihood of an accident seems remote, the immediate consequences dictate the behaviour.In the workplace, one person’s behaviour can be an antecedent or consequence for another person. The antecedents of the behaviour “wearing goggles” depend on the behaviour of the people who specified, procured and tested the kit; the consequences may depend on the behaviour of the supervisor who ignores the omission and the colleagues who laugh at the wearer for being soft. Behavioural safety programmes are criticised by trade unions when they focus on worker behaviour, such as wearing personal protective equipment or following site rules, without reference to antecedents and consequences rooted in leadership and management conduct.

The other pitfall of behavioural safety programmes is the risk that they might be used as a substitute for providing a safe workplace and a safe system of work that follows the hierarchy of controls. If an organisation has a high incidence of people slipping on a wet floor, the solution is not to immediately introduce a behavioural safety programme requiring people to walk carefully. If the floor is wet because machinery leaks, fix the leak. If the environment is such that the floor will become wet, limit the number of people that need to walk over it or increase the frequency of cleaning. Non-slip shoes might be added as a control for those who do need to cross the floor.

Only when the underlying risk has been reduced as low as reasonably practicable (see ALARP in last issue) does it make sense to apply behavioural safety. In the case of the wet floor, you should consider why people wear the wrong footwear, why they take a shortcut through the restricted area, or why they feel they need to run rather than walk.

A Health and Safety Executive research report (bit.ly/1W7QaXU) sets out six steps to implementing a behavioural safety programme, here applied to a manual handling operation.

Step 1: Establish the desired result: no one suffers a manual handling injury.
Step 2: Specify critical behaviour: correct manual handling technique is used.
Step 3: Establish that the target group can perform the behaviour: they are correctly trained and fit.
Step 4: Conduct ABC analysis. What happens if they ask someone to assist with a lift, ask for a break after an intense period of lifting or delay a move to fetch a trolley? What happens if they get on with a lift that is too heavy for them and complete a job early?
Step 5: Alter consequences to reinforce desired behaviour: commend those doing the job correctly. Positive reinforcement of good behaviour has a more powerful effect than negative reinforcement of bad practice, so you need to find people getting it right.
Step 6: Evaluate impact: are there fewer days sick leave from handling injuries? Are people demonstrating the correct technique?

You could insert an extra step between the first and second, to review assessments, accident and incident records, systems of work to ensure that everything reasonably practicable has been done to eliminate manual handling, and to provide a work environment where objects can be handled safely.

Behavioural safety is not about bonuses and treats for “good” workers. It is not a substitute for eliminating hazards, but a way of reinforcing behaviour needed to manage residual risk when other reasonably practicable actions have been taken. 



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  

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