Safety 2009: How Stages of Change Influence Safety Behaviors

June 30, 2009
Whether the goal is to lose weight, become a better parent or work in a safer manner, individuals move through six stages as they try to change their behaviors and develop new habits. Dianne Stober, Ph.D., explains how safety professionals can use this cognitive-behavioral safety approach to encourage positive change in employees and create a safer workplace.

“One of the prime reasons that change is really hard is that it takes energy,” said Stober, who presented this topic to attendees at the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Safety 2009 conference in San Antonio. “I think you’d all agree that getting to zero harm is a challenge most of us haven’t met or are constantly working toward.”

Stober stressed that attitudes and behavior are linked. The new hire fresh on the jobsite and the 20-year company veteran likely approach work with very different attitudes and beliefs about the work and the best way to do it.

“The beliefs I have [and] the attitudes I hold are going to lead me to certain kinds of behaviors and away from others,” she pointed out.

Stober walked attendees through the six stages of the individual change process and highlighted the attitudes that accompany each stage. She stressed that safety professionals must be aware of which stages employees are in; determine how well safety systems meet employees in their current stage; and determine how well the safety systems engage employees rather than turn them off.

The Stages

1. Precontemplation. In this stage, employees don’t feel they need to make any change at all. Experienced employees, for example, may hold the attitude that they’ve performed the work in a certain way for many years, and therefore don’t need to alter their actions. Employees in this stage are characterized as resistant, defensive and unaware. To influence these workers, Stober said, ask questions, particularly questions with personal reference. “Your task is to raise awareness, not to beat him up with facts or anything else,” Stober said. “Raising awareness is a cognitive process.”

2. Contemplation. Employees rooted in this stage, Stober said, are beginning to think about the process. They may be ambivalent, and they weigh the pros and cons of their actions. Influence contemplators by providing training and opportunities to discuss beliefs and attitudes. “Good safety talks should end with someone walking away thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way,’” Stober said. “Your task is giving ongoing opportunities for self-evaluation.”

3. Preparation. According to Stober, the “holy grail” of this process in the safety world is getting employees to think about safety and become determined to learn how to keep themselves safe. These employees display self-efficacy and readiness for change. Safety professionals can influence preparers by providing opportunities to harness their own thinking and tap into intrinsic motivation. Be sure to provide opportunities to link attitudes to action and develop safety commitments.

4. Action. Employees in this stage can pinpoint the changes they want to make and start to make them. “Action doesn’t mean that real change has happened yet,” Stober said. This is where employees are starting to “get there,” but their change might not yet carry over on a day-to-day basis. These employees are consciously practicing, but their new actions are not necessarily automatic. They must overcome habits to form a new habit of safe production. This is the stage, Stober said, in which behavioral-based safety tools start shining if they are used well. Influence these workers with reminders, feedback, recognition and ongoing, regular discussions. Your task as a safety professional is to provide support and reinforcement for positive actions.

5. Maintenance. In this stage, the change becomes part of the normal routine and employees think, “This is just the way we do it around here.” This is when new, safer behavior becomes a habit and attitudes and behaviors are consistent. Look for ways to reinforce these positive behaviors and attitudes and reassess the safety climate.

6. Relapse. While this stage often is overlooked, Stober said, it’s a normal part of the change process. A relapse doesn’t mean failure, however, and it’s important for employees to get back on the horse if they do suffer a relapse. “We’re more likely to return to old behaviors when we’re under stress or there’s a lot of change happening,” Stober said. “Any relapse is a learning opportunity because they’ve been successful before and they slipped up.” Safety professionals should provide ways to reaffirm commitments in this situation.

All six stages play an important role in the movement toward change. Most safety training and planning, however, tends to concentrate on the action stage. “We go straight to the behavior,” Sober said. “Sometimes that means we’ve left a lot of things undone.”

In addition, safety professionals and employers must realize that not all employees are going to fall in the same stage.

“Recognize that people are at different stages when it comes to making change,” Stober said. “If you’re trying to influence people’s behavior, recognize that they’re not all ready to just jump in.”

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