3 Industry workers in orange suits walking in row, benefitting from a holistic approach to sif prevention

The Safety Triad: A More Holistic Approach to SIF Prevention

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Organizational leaders are often looking for “the next big thing” when it comes to safety improvement. This is good! We should all be striving for continuous improvement. Unfortunately, we may abandon lessons learned from the past in search of future improvement. For many years, Tiger Woods famously revamped his near-perfect swing in search of perfection. This resulted in a major slowdown in his collection of major championships.

For all leaders, it is important to build on past successes when implementing new improvement efforts. For many years, cognitive approaches were used to influence employee attitudes for safety. Recent developments in brain-science have ignited a resurgence in this approach. However, for many years the cognitive approach was eclipsed by behavioral efforts including behavior-based safety (BBS). BBS had intuitive appeal as it directly focused on minimizing risky behaviors to prevent incidents. It also promoted peer-to-peer feedback and tracking data for long-term embedding. However, challenges with “checklists” including pencil-whipping and quotas limited the benefits of BBS for some users. Currently, human performance (HP) is gaining more traction to improve systems and prevent serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). In fact, the American Society of Safety Professionals held a symposium several years ago with a tagline essentially asking if HP was the next evolution beyond BBS.

So which philosophy is best: cognitive, behavioral, or human performance?

Trick question: they are ALL important. Benefits of each approach should be combined in a holistic fashion to improve safety culture and performance (see diagram). Leaders should apply HP principles to improve safety systems and stop “blame the employee” thinking. HP peer checks should be used to encourage open dialogue, psychological safety, and a learning environment with employees. Improvements should also be made and advertised based on employees’ feedback. Use peer check prompt questions like:

  • What scares you about the job?
  • Where is someone most likely to get injured?
  • What do you need to protect yourself and others?
  • How would you improve this job to avoid incidents?

However, important safety behaviors related to current injuries (e.g., “body position” with high incidents of strains and sprains) should also be on the peer check card. If there are challenges with these behaviors, leaders can work with employees to figure out systematic ways to improve them. Further, there are a number of behavioral tools that leaders can use to ensure their actions promote an open, learning environment for safety.

Behaviors are shaped by environmental contingencies.

Someone is more likely to rush if there’s excessive production pressure or insufficient manpower. Optimizing systems should improve safety behaviors. This is also true with attitudes and ownership. When leaders and employees have an “own it” mindset for safety, they are more likely to take personal responsibility and control for safety. Leaders spend more time in field working with employees to improve safety. Employees are more mindful of their own actions and are more likely to speak up with others when risks are observed. Also, people are more likely to share best practices and close calls with other groups.

Bottom line:

Legitimate change efforts need to be holistic with healthy doses of employee input. Focusing solely on attitudes, behaviors or systems is not the answer. Targeting them all is.

At Propulo, we work with leaders to use the best elements of cognitive, behavioral, and human performance approaches to improve safety culture and to prevent SIFs.


BBS 2.0: Fueling Discretionary Effort to Prevent SIFs


The Safety Leader’s Agenda for 2021: Embedding COVID-19 Safety Leadership Progress