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Behavior-Based Training for Safety and Health

While safety is important, putting safety first sends the wrong message to our organization. Here's why.

Safety and health training is effective when it changes the safety-related behavior of the trainees. Safety and health trainers can put their hearts and minds into the best training they can think of, only to see trainees in the field doing things that contradict the instruction they have received.

From our experience as students, we thought that good training could be summed up as enthusiastic information transfer in a classroom. In our earlier training assignments, we also assumed that hourly workers would be our usual trainees. Taken together, our assumptions overlooked the particular need in industrial safety and health of engaging personnel at all levels of an organization to motivate themselves and each other through hands-on action-planning for performance improvement.


The challenge for safety and health training is that some of the most serious exposures to risk result when the workforce fails to perform safe behaviors that the organization supports only partially (difficult behaviors) or not at all (non-enabled behaviors). Training that improves the performance rate of those behaviors must include managers and supervisors because the aim of that training is to improve both management and system support for the identified safe behaviors.

This kind of training (applied behavior analysis and action planning) often includes joint groups of salaried and hourly workers. The hourly workers help to identify the system barriers that make particular safety-related behaviors either difficult or non-enabled. The managers provide the resources and priority needed to remove the barriers and put in place new system antecedents and consequences.

In the practice of behavior-based training, there are four related points:

1) The goal of training is behavioral change.

2) Some behaviors are harder to change than others.

3) Behavioral change often requires system change.

4) To change wage-roll behavior, expect to change management behavior.

1) The goal of training is behavioral change.

We do not conduct safety and health training just to transfer information. Dictionaries and handbooks can do that. We don"t spend our ingenuity just to produce trainees who can repeat the lesson by rote, nor do we offer training just to satisfy rules and regulations.

The functional purpose of safety and health training is to improve (influence) the performance (behavior) of the trainees. It comes down to behavioral change.

Behavior-based training is focused from the outset on helping trainees reduce the number and frequency of their identified at-risk behaviors.

Such training promotes:

  • An understanding of exactly which behaviors are critical to exposure reduction, and
  • The motivation to achieve continuous improvement in safety performance.

For the trainees, it is not enough to know why to avoid contact. It is as critical for them to understand the types of behaviors that either increase exposure (at-risk behaviors) or reduce risk of exposure (identified safe behaviors).

2) Some behaviors are harder to change than others.

Not all behaviors are equal. We define an enabled behavior as one over which employees have control. Typically, an enabled behavior is an instance of "how we do things around here."

A non-enabled behavior is one over which employees do not have control. This may be a behavior that we are "supposed to do around here," but, in point of fact, we don"t have the equipment or the time or the permission to perform the behavior.

Difficult behaviors lie between these two extremes. A behavior is difficult when we can perform it, but only at the cost of going out of our way, because, for instance, the requisite equipment or tools are not located near our work station.

Classroom instruction for wage-roll workers is primarily effective at reinforcing or extending behaviors that are enabled. Such instruction builds on the underlying support that already exists for the identified safe behaviors, and it helps maintain those behaviors by:

  • Orienting new personnel to the enabled group practice, and
  • Updating or extending the enabled practice for the group.

For the newcomers, the instruction clarifies risk perception and shows how the identified safe behavior preserves them from risk.

In contrast, classroom instruction plays a subordinate role in changing difficult or non-enabled behaviors. Upgrade difficult behaviors into enabled behaviors requires applied behavior analysis, action planning, and performance feedback. Further, to change non-enabled behaviors into enabled (fully supported) behaviors requires an organization to address the management and system issues that prevent the employee from performing the behavior safely. Included in this change-effort is the change in the perception of employees about whether the organization will allow them to perform the behavior without serious negative consequences. This implies another basic point.

3) Behavioral change requires system change.

Although employees have no natural desire to be exposed to hazardous materials or to be injured, they nevertheless take risks. The reason is that organizations have performance barriers that prevent or discourage safe behaviors or reinforce and encourage at-risk behaviors. While wage-roll workers can help identify barriers to safe performance, it is management"s role to provide the resources for removing barriers.

4) To change wage-roll behavior, expect to change management behavior.

Point four is addressed in the sections of this article that present the activities of problem-solving and action-planning. Those activities present some of the most fruitful training opportunities. They typically include supervisors, and may include other managers.

Upgrading a Difficult Behavior

One way to state the goal of a systematic training effort is that it maintains enabled behaviors and upgrades difficult and non-enabled behaviors.

To upgrade a difficult behavior, training must go beyond the classroom, but it probably does not require management attention beyond the supervisory level. A joint worker and supervisor action plan can be drafted and followed up in group safety meetings. Employee involvement is crucial in this effort. The reason to enlist shop floor personnel in identifying difficult safety behaviors is that they live and work most closely with the obstacles to excellent safety performance.

At a distance from the shop floor, it is fairly common for managers not to see the system barriers that make obstacles to safety. While they often admit that there is "always room for improvement," they may also think that the only improvement possible is so slight that it would not be time- or cost-effective. In reality, many leading companies have found that employee involvement can produce solutions that bring noteworthy net gains.

Action Planning Scenario

This section presents the steps for upgrading a difficult behavior: Wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) while working in a hydrogen cyanide valve room.

At the chemical manufacturing plant in this scenario, at least once on each shift, wage-roll workers reset or readjust valves on pipes carrying hydrogen cyanide, a very toxic substance. Site procedure calls for anyone entering the hydrogen cyanide valve room to wear SCBA. In a recent disciplinary action, a supervisor suspended a worker for not wearing SCBA. During a routine follow-up to the disciplinary action, the site"s safety and health professionals begin to hear that many site personnel are taking the same shortcut for which their coworker was suspended.

Several workers describe the shortcut: Just prior to entering the hydrogen cyanide valve room, the workers pause and inhale deeply to fill their lungs with air. Then, holding their breath, they snap open the door, walk quickly into the room, make the valve changes, and quickly leave the room, closing the door behind them.

The site"s safety and health professionals know they have to change this at-risk behavior, since breathing hydrogen cyanide, even in small quantities, can be fatal. When the workers are first asked about this shortcut, many of them minimize its importance. They say they think the risk of a leak is very small, and that the valve-reset task takes such a short time that they just prefer to hold their breath, make the valve adjustment, and be on their way.

The safety and health trainers at the site attend the next crew safety meeting on each shift to do off-the-record background discussions with wage-roll workers. To reassure wage-roll workers of the strictly fact-finding nature of those discussions, supervisors leave the room, and no names are noted or recorded by the safety staff. Separate meetings are held with the supervisors to collect their input and observations. These meetings help in developing a detailed analysis of the system antecedents and consequences for both the at-risk behavior and the safe behavior. This mix of support for safe and for at-risk behaviors is typical of real-world organizations. Once an organization has an accurate analysis of the antecedents and consequences supporting an at-risk behavior, personnel can often use the action planning techniques shown below to manage their own performance improvement.

Analysis of Behavior

Why are some employees not wearing the SCBA in the hydrogen-cyanide valve room?

antecedents for the at-risk behavior are:

1. Crew members are counting on holding their breath.

2. The crew has high trust in the integrity of the piping system, and they expect no leaks.

3. Crew members are giving each other and newcomers informal training in the shortcut.

4. The SCBA is located 70 feet away from the valve room.

5. The SCBA air cylinders are often low or empty, and they are time-consuming to replace.

6. The SCBA mask usually is dirty.

7. The current SCBA equipment is heavy and uncomfortable to wear.

Consequences currently reinforcing the at-risk behavior:

1. Worker saves time.

2. Avoids wearing the unhygienic mask.

3. Avoids cleaning the mask.

4. Avoids replacing the partially empty air cylinder.

5. It"s more comfortable to work without wearing the heavy respirator.

Why are some employees wearing the SCBA in the valve room?

Antecedents triggering the safe behavior are:

1. Crew members have been trained about the dangers of hydrogen cyanide.

2. Crew members are aware that they could inadvertently be in the valve room for a longer period than they can hold their breath.

3. Supervisors have directed crews to use SCBA.

4. Store room always has full cylinders.

Consequences currently reinforcing the safe behavior are:

1. Pride in excellent performance.

2. Protection from hydrogen cyanide exposure.

3. Avoidance of supervisory reprimand.

The Action Plan

The safety and health professionals who conduct the background fact-finding discussions present these behavioral analyses to joint meetings of supervisors and their crews. They point out that the combined crews are in a good position to do action planning on the at-risk behavior by changing the system antecedents triggering it and the consequences reinforcing it. With that aim, the groups brainstorm to identify interventions that would remove support for the at-risk behavior and strengthen support for the safe behavior. For each item in the emerging action plan, they include accountability and deadlines by agreeing on who will do what by when.

Supervisor Action Items:

1. By the end of shift tomorrow, day-shift supervisor will write the work order for the installation of a new cabinet on the wall directly outside of the hydrogen cyanide valve room.

2. By the end of shift in three days, the day-shift supervisor will write the purchase order for the cabinet and new air-line respirator, mask cleaning supplies and 5-minute backup cylinders.

3. By the end of shift (specify which day), the day-shift supervisor will assure completion of the work order through installation of the new equipment.

Taken together, these three supervisor action items represent a number of antecedent interventions and consequence interventions. The new proximity of the relocated SCBA equipment is an antecedent intervention that strengthens the trigger for the safe behavior. Relocating the SCBA equipment is also a consequence intervention that removes the current 140-foot round-trip to the control room, and thus cancelling the "saves time" consequence formerly reinforcing the at-risk behavior.

The new air-line equipment is easier to wear and to clean, an antecedent intervention triggering the safe behavior and weakening or removing consequences that formerly reinforced the at-risk behavior. Moving the respirator air supply closer to the valve room also strengthens the antecedents for the safe behavior of using the equipment, and weakens or removes the consequences for the at-risk behavior of not wearing it.

4. Upon installation of the new respirator at the top of each shift for the following three months, supervisors will remind crew members to use the new SCBA equipment when they are working in the hydrogen cyanide valve room. Within the first week after that three-month period, supervisors schedule time during meetings for safety and health trainers to facilitate crew performance reviews. The top-of-shift reminder is a new antecedent for the safe behavior. The contribution and participation of each supervisor in the subsequent three-month performance review is a new consequence given by the group to reinforcing the safe behavior itself.

5. Upon installation of the new respirator, whenever a supervisor from any shift sees any crew members using the SCBA equipment, the supervisor recognizes them positively with such words as: "It"s good to see you using that equipment" or "Thanks for using the SCBA and for not taking the shortcut," or "I"m glad to see you doing the safe behavior and avoiding the at-risk."

Over time, as this reinforcement becomes clearly understood throughout each crew, the supervisor feedback can become more telegraphic (eye contact plus thumbs-up sign), but the supervisors agree to positively reinforce the safe behavior every time they see it for the foreseeable future. This is part of upgrading the safe behavior from difficult to enabled and of shifting the safe behavior from something the crew is "supposed to do" to the unquestioned status of "how we do things around here." Feedback of this kind is a consequence intervention that can be very influential for workgroup practice. The supervisors keep it positive because positive consequences offer workgroups a net gain over negative consequences.

Trainer Action Items:

1. Within three weeks of the receipt of new respirator equipment, develop and deliver classroom instruction to all shifts on use and cleaning of the new SCBA. This training provides an antecedent for the safe behavior.

2. In all orientation training for new personnel, include training on the air-line respirator for the hydrogen cyanide valve room. This training provides an antecedent for the safe behavior.

Workgroup Action Items:

1. While the SCBA upgrade is in progress, crew members will use existing SCBA, in spite of temporary inconveniences. This action item was first expressed as an agreement or pledge by the crew members during the action planning meeting. The act of taking the pledge to use the existing SCBA is itself an antecedent for the safe behavior. With performance issues in safety and health, an important part of "walking the talk" is getting the relevant talk straightened out in the first place.

2. Upon installation of the new respirator, at the top of each shift for the following three months, the senior operator joins the supervisor in reminding the crew to use the SCBA equipment when they are working in the hydrogen cyanide valve room. The contribution and participation of each senior operator in the subsequent 3-month performance review is a new consequence given by the group to itself or reinforcing the safe behavior.

3. Upon installation of the new respirator, one worker on each shift inspects the equipment to see that the face mask is clean, the compressed air cylinder is charged, the air-line hose and fittings are sound, and that there is at least one full 5-minute backup air cylinder in the SCBA cabinet. Crew knowledge of this action item acts as an antecedent for the safe behavior. Maintained in this way, the equipment itself continually delivers consequences that reinforce the safe behavior. The new consequences weaken or cancel at least several consequences that used to reinforce the at-risk behavior.

4. The crew members stop showing the at-risk shortcut to new personnel. Instead, they introduce new personnel to the safe behavior of using the SCBA, and they give them positive feedback for doing so. By not teaching newcomers the old at-risk shortcut, the crew removes an antecedent that formerly triggered that at-risk behavior. By giving positive feedback for using the SCBA, the crew delivers a consequence that reinforces the safe behavior.

Performance Review Meetings

After working with the new SCBA equipment for three months, the trainers facilitate workgroup performance review meetings for each supervisor and crew. Supervisors and crew alike report that they have "reset their baseline" and that SCBA use is now truly their standard operating procedure.

In addition, most of the individuals involved in the earlier action planning sessions agree that the action-planning technique was valuable and that they ought to use it more often. The wage-roll workers admit that they have been hesitant to suggest this kind of approach because supervisors "are so busy as it is." The supervisors admit that, in the past, they did not make enough time for this kind of session because they were not used to approaching safety and health issues in this way. Everyone agrees to practice this new approach on some other performance targets that are probably as important as this SCBA project. OH

The authors are colleagues at Behavioral Science Technology Inc., an industrial safety consulting firm headquartered in Ojai, Calif. and also located at

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