Improve Your Safety Culture Today: Part 4 of Five-Part Blog Series
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
Forward-thinking leaders are continually searching for ways to advance safety culture and prevent serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). Several years ago, I published a book with Government Institutes entitled, “Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention.” The book was designed to be a user-friendly guide for leaders to improve safety culture and performance. Here are key takeaways from the book that may help your safety improvement efforts. Each of the five sections in Figure 1 will be detailed in this 5-part blog series, following with Behaviour.
Incidents and injuries often involve risky work practices or behaviors. System factors like time pressure, insufficient personnel, and poor hiring and training practices almost always contribute to these risky actions.
Understanding our behaviors is critical to injury prevention. And to be clear, behavior simply means observable action. The information below is academic but also foundational for understanding and improving safe work practices.
Behavioral psychologists (especially in the safety field) frequently use the ABC model to explain safe and at-risk behaviors. Basically, Antecedents (A) get our attention to Behave (B) in a certain way. This leads to Consequences (C) which ultimately motivate what we do. Antecedents include safety signs, meetings, rules etc. Behaviors (safe or at-risk) include wearing a safety harness, locking-out power, and putting on a respirator in a confined space. Positive consequences include going home safely and personal pride for safe work practices. Negative consequences include injuries and reprimands for at-risk work practices. Also, consequences are considered strong or weak. Strong consequences are probable, soon, and significant and weak ones are improbable, delayed, and insignificant.
Here’s a quick analysis using the ABC model to help explain the at-risk behavior of grinding without a face shield. Antecedents that encourage face shield use include safety signs, training, and supervisory presence. Antecedents that discourage face shield use include time pressure, scratched face shields, and a lack of availability. Consequences that encourage face shield use include not getting an eye injury and not getting in trouble. It is improbable that employees will be injured or get in trouble (unless they get caught) for grinding without a face shield (although these consequences would be soon and significant). Because these consequences are improbable, they lack strength.
On the other hand, consequences that discourage face shield use include saving time, better vision, and more comfort. All of these consequences are probable, soon, and significant. This means they’re strong and employees are likely to follow them. So, the natural consequences are stronger for not wearing face shields than for wearing them.
Smoking cigarettes is another example. The positive consequence of smoking (relaxation) is probable, soon, and significant. It’s especially significant if the person is anxious or stressed out (antecedents). However, thousands of people die every year from lung cancer associated with smoking. Obviously, this is an extremely significant consequence. However, it may not seem probable nor immediate. For this reason (and because of nicotine), countless people delay or abandon their efforts to quit smoking every day.
In general, the natural consequences of at-risk behavior outweigh those of safe behavior. As a result, people often take safety shortcuts. This is true for numerous safety behaviors such as PPE use, proper lifting, vehicle driving etc. It’s especially true when system factors (e.g., excessive production pressure) further support the at-risk behavior.
Improving Safety Behaviors
Risky actions are human nature which are often reinforced by the work environment. Action steps need to be taken to prevent their occurrence. Here are some reminders to eliminating this human error and corresponding incidents:
- Leaders need to reinforce safe work practices and coach risky ones. Praising safe actions increases their probability in the future and improves culture and morale.
- Leaders need to address system factors (time pressure, faulty equipment) contributing to at-risk behavior. Fixing system factors removes antecedents to risky behavior. It also demonstrates actively caring for employees’ health and well-being.
- Employees should be encouraged to give each other helpful safety feedback in an open, respectful manner. Most injuries would have be prevented if a coworker had spoken up. We need to overcome barriers to feedback (e.g., different levels of seniority, working in different areas) and promote peer-to-peer safety feedback.
Improving safe work behaviors decreases the probability of life-altering serious injuries and fatalities. Take active steps to reinforce safe work behaviors and respectfully coach risky ones.
In Part 5 of this series, we’ll investigate ways to improve your Safety Communication to improve overall safety culture.