The Psychological Basis for Behavioural Safety

We look at how adopting a psychological, behaviour-based approach to health and safety might benefit organisations.

Increasing interest in phycological approach

In recent years, health and safety professionals have been increasingly interested in the psychology of safety, with seminars attracting standing-room-only crowds. But, do we really understand how much of a shift the health and safety profession will have to make to fully utilise the benefits of a phycological approach.

Negative perspective

Despite the levels of general interest behaviour-based safety if you try to start a conversation, with most people about the psychology behind the approach you are likely to get a negative response and a quick change of subjects.

Part of the reason for this is that many people associate psychology with experiments on dogs and chimpanzees or people given instructions to electrocute innocent people.

In some ways this negative perspective, is also created by the same lack of understanding about the mind that makes people uncomfortable talking about mental health.

Actions motivated by response

There is a solid body of evidence that behaviour is motivated by its consequences, so if you want to create a specific behaviour you are more likely to be successful if that behaviour delivers a result that the person values and finds attractive.

This is often described as positive reinforcement.

Behaviour control vs. personal responsibility

The alternative to a behaviour-based program might seem to be one of personal responsibility.

This approach relies on the assumption that or having in place measures that ensure that a worker knows how to work safely.

We can take steps to remove risks completely or manage those risks so that they are reduced to a minimum level.

When neither of these is possible, we can educate people in the nature of those risks so that they can remain safe. We can also provide them with tools and protective equipment or clothing that also helps to reduce the risk of injury.

They know better

Unfortunately, people do not appreciate the risks involved in their work.

Sometimes they don not 

  • Follow the safety rules or take active steps to create short cuts that create risks.
  • Do not follow the safety rules
  • Do not use the safety equipment or clothing that has been provided.

Train, educate, police, discipline – repeat

The conventional approach is for employers to provide refresher health and safety training and use educational resources such as posters and screen savers in order to reinforce training and ensure that key messages do not get forgotten with the passage of time.

If employees still fail to comply with health and safety rules the conventional response is to discipline the employee and potentially dismiss them.

Everything in the conventional approach is centred around the negative consequences of not complying with the health and safety rules.

Take a chance

The theory behind behavioural safety suggests that anyone will take a risk if the perceived benefits of taking that risk are more value to them than the consequences of the risk going wrong.

This is why drivers will use their hand-held mobile telephone when driving or break the speed limit. They want to make that telephone call, and so are prepared to take the risk of being caught or being distracted from their driving and having an accident.

In the same way a worker will remove a machine guard so that they can complete a task more quickly and achieve a production bonus.

Reward safety

To be successful a behaviour-based health and safety strategy has to reward safe behaviours.

Instead of the emphasis being on completing the task, more importance needs to be placed on how the task was completed.
Workers should be encouraged to provide evidence of working safely.

Safety must be made intrinsic to the task.

Best way

The best way to avoid an accident is to remove unsafe behaviours from the way that people work and the best way to do that is to demonstrate not just the importance of safe working practices but also the value you as an employer place on those safe behaviours

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