A question we are often asked is, “what is ‘behaviour based safety?”. Not surprisingly there is no simple (or short answer!) to this question but the following should go some way to providing it.
When describing behaviour based safety it is important to firstly define its’ purpose. The purpose of any behaviour based safety approach should be to eliminate or at least minimise the existence of risk taking behaviour through the development of a ‘high performing safety culture’.
The safety culture itself is simply the ‘behavioural norms’ that go on within the environment in question. Behaviour is both influenced by the environment and also the outcomes that one comes to expect from the behaviour. The more positive these outcomes are and the more accepting is the environment then as human beings we develop habits both in our way of thinking and acting.
Traditional approaches to behavioural safety focus heavily on the front line behaviours of the workforce, whereas an effective approach must focus on those organisational and environmental aspects that influence the behaviour of the workforce and that typically start at the top of the organisation and cascade down. We refer to this as the organisational ‘context’. This means in practice that you cannot and must not ignore the leadership and management behaviours and those things that influence how leaders and managers behave.
If everyone’s behaviour from the top to the bottom of the organisation is such that safe behaviour and supportive management behaviour is the ‘norm’ then a high performing safety culture is in existence.
We know that most accidents are caused by people’s unsafe behaviour. Behaviour that either directly or indirectly (eg – management failing to encourage safety) creates risk. Such behaviour will arise because people are either doing something they were unaware was unsafe or doing something they knew was unsafe but chose to do it in any case – typically believing that ‘nothing will go wrong’. Most unsafe behaviours are in fact a matter of ‘choice’, some so frequent that they simply become unsafe habits.
The challenge in most organisations becomes “how can we influence our people who have no desire to get hurt to work safely all of the time”. This is where the organisational ‘context’ is key and the safety culture is all important.
It is an odd fact that human beings are naturally risk takers and it is largely our higher order of intelligence that makes this so. With our intelligence comes a tremendous capacity for memory and fast recall and so experience during our lives can heavily influence our perception of the likelihood aspect of risk versus the all important potential for serious loss. In health and safety terms this is the role of the frequently quoted ‘accident triangle’ where we experience only rare loss compared to the frequency of unsafe behaviour. This is a crucial fact that cannot be ignored or taken lightly and so any behaviour based safety approach needs to acknowledge it is seeking to engage and influence intelligent human beings whose life and work experience may have created a shift in their perception of risk and therefore their motivation to always behave safely. Taking a risk becomes the product of what is known as ‘risk compensation’ and occurs largely because a person feels safe in doing so despite the cold reality of what is potentially at stake.
This is why a behaviour based safety approach must be all encompassing and must respect human nature rather than try to battle it. If we constantly take the approach that it is ‘in the person’s best interest to behave safely’ (which it is of course) but then fail to take our natural risk taking appetite into account then our programmes will always fall short of creating the safe habits that can eliminate accidents. An effective approach will have an appropriate focus on the type of behaviours that can arise and differentiate between errors (unintentional unsafe behaviour) and violations (intentional unsafe behaviour). The maturity of the existing safety culture will determine both the prevalence of unsafe behaviours and also the likely ratio between these two very different behaviour types. In a highly mature organisational context (such as a commercial passenger airline) one would expect to see a low frequency of unsafe behaviours and interestingly where they do happen a dominance of error over violation. In a less mature safety culture (such as a construction company) one would expect to see higher frequency of unsafe behaviours and a shift towards a dominance of violation over error. The approach taken and the focus provided in any behaviour based safety programme must take the existing cultural maturity in to account so that the right solutions are applied in the correct manner. Errors require for example an improvement in capability (training, equipment, design etc) and violations require an improvement in motivation (measurement, reward, recognition, accountability etc).
An effective behaviour based safety approach will therefore consist of the following key phases:
Phase 1 –Assessment: Understand the strengths and weaknesses within the current safety culture. This is a critical phase and must provide clear insight in to aspects such as:
- How do leaders behave in the organisation in supporting (or not) the safety culture?
- What are the business values/principles for safety? How are they promoted?
- How is safety measured and how reflective of good or poor performance is such measurement?
- How effectively is safety performance fed back to the workforce and in what form?
- When is positive safety performance and behaviour recognised/celebrated?
- When is performance criticised and improvement planning instigated?
- Are unsafe behaviours dealt with in a ‘just and fair’ manner through the disciplinary process?
- How are contractors selected and how is contractor performance in safety evaluated?
- How is safety built in to business contracts?
- What skills are supervisors equipped with to influence and lead their teams on safety?
- How does design and planning effect safety at the execution sites?
- What are the safety critical behaviours for the various parts of the organisation that have in the past and may in the future cause severe events.
- How clearly are the critical behaviours described within the business and how well are they known?
- What KPIs are used to evaluate individual contribution to the safety culture?
- What indicators are used to describe team performance around safety?
Phase 2 – Design: Develop a programme that is both engaging at all levels of the business and provides clear opportunity for sustainable improvement within safety with the added benefit of an approach that is capable of driving business performance in general. At the very heart of the design must be the principles of behavioural science and particularly the application of performance management techniques.
Phase 3 – Training & Implementation: Ensuring optimum awareness of principles, goals and objectives at every level of the organisation to create alignment of behavioural expectation and enthusiasm for change. There is a minimum requirement here to create a ‘critical mass’ of staff (and ideally contractor key staff) to create an organisational ‘tipping point’ that will create a sustainable improvement programme. The change starts with and is subsequently driven by leadership.
Phase 4 – Improvement measurement: Identify and track those behaviour based KPIs that are related to the increase of safe behaviour across every level of the organisation from the Board to the front line workforce.
- KPIs should be established on completion of phase 2
- Typically such KPIs form the content of a ‘balanced scorecard’ of performance indicators
- Typically 4-5 indicators would be selected that can be applied across the whole business and serve as a useful indicator of the improving safety culture such as:
- Safe observations of the ‘top 4’ safety critical behaviours
- Safety inspection scores conducted by / validated by EHS team
- Safety audit scores
- Near miss actions closed out in a timely manner
- Senior management tours conducted
- Reduction in injury frequency rate
A behaviour based safety programme must include all four of these phases in order to ensure that the drive for change is successful (as per John Kotter’s 1996 ‘step change model’ below). This will set the ‘positive context’ for safety in the organisation and ensure that sustainable change is the outcome.
Ultimately the purpose of behaviour based safety is simple and can be summarised here:
- Create the desire/motivation to follow the safety rules and work as trained
- Design and implement safe systems of work that make human error less likely
Written by: John Tucker
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