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Five steps to safer behaviour

The goal is to change habits before they lead to incidents.

March 28, 2018  By Jeff Thorne

Jeff Thorne is the manager of training and consulting at the Occupational Safety Group in London

Behaviour is one of the most common denominators for every organizational performance issue. It certainly is when it comes to safety. So often we see repeatedly poor safety performance and there is no sustainable change in behaviour because the focus is on the action and not the behaviour that led to the action. To curb the non-compliant behaviour we discipline without ever realizing what led to the behaviour. This makes it difficult to achieve desired changes in safety performance.

When organizations take the wrong approach to changing safety behaviours in the workplace, often all the time and effort spent in creating and implementing a behaviour-based safety program has been wasted as the program doesn’t yield the desired results. The focus remains on the process and the sequence of a behaviour-based safety program where the focus should be on safe behaviours.

For the implementation of a behaviour-based safety program to be successful, there are five key things that need to occur.

1. Identify the objectives and outcomes of a behaviour-based program.
The main objective of a behaviour-based safety program focuses on making safe behaviour a habit. Many incidents arise from the repeated at-risk behaviour of the worker. The worker has worked unsafely for years and avoided injury, so assumes there is no need to change their behaviour. A major objective of your program is to replace unsafe behaviours with automatic safe work habits. To do this, all parties must be able to understand and apply basic principles of behaviour change effectively so everyone is working towards the same goal.


2. Application of positive reinforcement. We’ve all done it, we’ve all taken risks.
Often we take risks because there is a positive result. Risk-taking may result in saved time, effort, and resources. The unsafe behaviour that we exhibit occurs and is maintained because of the perceived positive results that follow. Therefore, management needs to focus on positively reinforcing safe work habits to replace unsafe habits. A little training in how to effectively apply positive reinforcement goes a long way.

3. Applying the program to everyone in the company, not just the front-line workers.
All too often these programs are targeted at yard staff, mechanics and drivers only and they may grow to feel like they are the ones putting in all the effort to make the process work. For change to be sustained, the program must apply to management and office staff. Workers’ safe behaviour must be reinforced, as should the managers and supervisors for supporting and reinforcing the workers’ safe behaviour.

4. Training – just do it.
Provide the same type of training to everyone. All parties – managers, supervisors and workers – should be trained in core behaviour principles and the objectives and outcomes of the behaviour-based safety program. Desired behaviours and roles and responsibilities should all be clearly defined so that everyone can accept their role within the program. The training must focus on safe behaviour, not the process.

5. Create a program that fits the needs of the organization.
Many organizations take the same approach where their behaviour-based safety program focuses on a specific action sequence: meetings about what to observe, detailed observation, data collection and review, and more meetings, with very little focus on changing the behaviour. A well-planned and designed program does not require significant amounts of time offline to complete training, complete paperwork, perform observations and attend meetings. The program should not affect key performance indicators such as service and production.

If you’re implementing a behaviour–based safety program, it should be custom-tailored to fit your needs. Keep observations short, no longer than five minutes. Focus on two or three behaviours, not an extensive list, and be prepared to implement changes quickly.

Behaviour-based safety is more than observation. It’s about understanding how and why people do the things they do. When we have an understanding of how to change behaviours and properly reinforce desired safety behaviours, safety performance will improve.

Jeff Thorne is the manager of training and consulting at the Occupational Safety Group in London, Ont.

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