Safety Catalyst: Inspiring Behavioral Change

June 9, 2006
If you aspire to higher levels of safety performance and you've tried everything from ergonomic design to auditing-based interventions consider developing expert skills for inspiring behavioral change.

Inspiring behavioral change was the topic of an audio conference my colleague Ron Bowles and I presented for the American Society of Safety Engineers in May 2006.

Think of this challenge as another kind of engineering, one for which the target for improvement is so complex that no one knows exactly what makes it tick. Each model can differ in its internal mechanisms and it can change rapidly in a moment.

This is no simple charge. But as I see it, there's little choice for those who have reached a plateau of diminishing returns and aren't content to settle there.

The vice president of manufacturing of a Fortune 500 company remarked about the firm's safety leadership: "Ninety percent of the things we've done to improve safety are positive. But to get another 1 percent improvement now, it's about us, our people and our culture."

There are many strategies I could cover, but I will focus on two: Harvesting the fruit of higher-hanging safety performance requires elevating motivation and building skills at all organizational levels.

Motivation is necessary to boost interest, excitement and receptivity, and mental and physical skills must go well-beyond "think before you act" or "PPE 101" if they are to tangibly result in more efficient, effective actions that can be readily applied to a wide range of tasks.


When it comes to motivating others "creating movement" go beyond the traditional kiss-kick-scare-guilt approaches. Rather than pulling or pushing others to act, think instead of motivating them. Relate safety methods to their favorite activities, not just to the ones you want them to do.

Express safety as more than just preventing injuries that employees don't really believe will

happen to them. It's more about living their lives fully alive, excited, making good decisions, looking ahead and being more accomplished in what's important to them. A strong home safety approach is critical to getting this message across, especially with workers who skeptically believe the true aim of safety is increasing company margins.

Building Skill Sets

To truly inspire behavioral change, you need to move beyond the traditional idea of workplace safety auditing. In turn, this will help employees develop valuable skill sets than can have a positive impact on safety.

While observations and reporting can have a positive reinforcing impact, that impact is limited to the relatively few moments when the auditor sees the worker on task. This can be as infrequent as 10 minutes once a month or less. And it's also limited to those actions an auditor can see. Workplace safety audits don't catch off-work hobbies and tasks that contribute to cumulative trauma. Auditing approaches assume that workers already have all those skills needed to perform as safely as possible; this is often not the case.

If you already have an auditing program, you can balance (and reinvigorate) it with a system that shows employees how to monitor themselves. This latter approach has the advantage of being self-reinforcing. By learning to self-audit, workers have real opportunities to make many adjustments during each day in their risk awareness, judgment, decision-making and positioning at work and off work.

One way to foster self-monitoring is to help employees become skilled in directing their attention to the task at hand. For example, by demonstrating how workers can immediately improve range of motion by leading their actions with their eyes prior to moving their body or hands.

Significant improvements can occur when you help people develop a kinesthetic feel for safe work behaviors, beyond just an intellectual or visual image of what they are expected to do. People who are good at anything from welding to palletizing to gardening to golf develop a feeling for what they do. They kinesthetically sense how to position their work, apply best timing and make adjustments when things don't go exactly to plan.

The more you can help people develop a feeling for safe productive work, the more likely they will engage in the same even when no one else is watching.

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