Safety and the Science of Human Behavior

Sept. 22, 2009
In an interview with EHS Today, leadership expert Dr. Aubrey C. Daniels discussed positive reinforcement, realistic safety goals, incentives and how the science of behavior can impact workplace safety.

Daniels, the author of several management books, including Oops! 13 Management Practices that Waste Time and Money, has spent decades working to apply what he calls “the science of human behavior” in workplaces – a science that can help unleash better performance company-wide.

“Of all departments within an organization, safety really owns the behavioral franchise,” Daniels told EHS Today. “In other words, [safety professionals] are the ones that look at behavior, at actually what people do, more than anyone else. So if they know how to change behavior from unsafe to safe, then they should know how to change behavior as it relates to quality, productivity, customer service, sales and the like. As a safety professional, you have that skill.”

At too many organizations, however, Daniels said that safety is viewed as a separate function instead of being embedded in the system. “We do it [safety] on top of other things as opposed to a part of everything,” he explained.

Positive Reinforcement

According to Daniels, companies can instill safe working behaviors in employees by creating a positive-reinforcement environment.

“Most people are naïve about understanding what positive reinforcement is,” he said, pointing out that it doesn’t mean saying only positive things, giving the occasional pat on the back or always acting positive in the workplace. Instead, it means helping workers succeed by encouraging the right behaviors. In a positive-reinforcement relationship, workers respect and trust the decisions of management.

“Positive reinforcement is any consequence that follows a behavior and increases its frequency,” Daniels wrote in Oops! 13 Management Practices that Waste Time and Money. “We cannot say that money, telling someone that he is doing a good job, or giving an attaboy is a reinforcer. They are only reinforcers if they increase the behavior.”

Daniels added in his interview with EHS Today, “If you have a positive reinforcement relationship with somebody, they’ll basically say, ‘If that’s important to you, we’ll do it.’”

Incentives Based on Change? Bingo.

While Daniels acknowledged that safety incentives can be useful, he explained that too often, they aren’t applied correctly.

For example, following a string of incidents, a company decides to introduce “safety bingo” to encourage safer behavior. After implementing the game, recordables might stop for a period of time, leading people to believe the bingo worked. If nothing actually has been changed in the workplace, however, the safety bingo hasn’t solved any problems.

“It’s interesting to me that people really think that [initiatives like safety bingo] impacts safe working behavior – it doesn’t. I can tell you categorically that it doesn’t impact safety,” Daniels said. “The only way to use [incentives] appropriately is where you actually reward people doing things safely … There has to be some system to ensure that any incentive is based on an actual change or sustaining safe work habits. If you’re not confident with that, then incentives are going to be problematic more than they’re going to be problem-solving.”

Misleading Milestones

The same goes for celebrating safety milestones: these rewards might neither reflect nor encourage safe behavior.

“Stop this business of celebrating hours without a lost-time accident,” Daniels said. “You can do a safe hour by sitting against a wall. And what does that do for the organization?”

Daniels suggested that managers put initiatives like safety milestone celebrations through The Dead Man’s Test. “If a dead man can do it perfectly, it won’t solve your problem,” he explained. “A dead man can have no accidents.”

He expanded on this idea in his book:

“In celebrating millions of hours with a lost-time accident, you can bet as the organization approaches the milestone, performance will be negatively impacted as no one wants to be the person to have an accident,” he wrote in Oops! “Therefore, employees are careful to a fault. Dead men have no accidents. Rewarding and celebrating no accidents and no defects may result in hiding defects or even not reporting minor accidents.”

An alternative to celebrating a period of time without an incident, Daniels said, is to track how many units are produced or how many deliveries are made without a lost-time accident. This type of metric also tends to be in line with the organization’s mission.

“I think that leadership should be focused on the mission of the company,” he said. “If you don’t do things safely, then you’re not going to be able to fulfill your mission best. In other words, any time you have a lost-time injury, you’ve had a cost and a reduction in some aspect of the organization’s performance, and that is costly.”

Working Safely

Daniels cautioned safety professionals from setting unrealistic goals, such as striving toward zero injuries. Instead, he stressed that safety targets should focus on improvement, not immediate perfection.

“The issue is not what our ultimate target is, but how we get there,” he explained. “We get there by changing one behavior at a time. You can have all these lofty goals that you want, but you’re going to be disappointed more often than not when you don’t reach them.”

Finally, Daniels noted that while many companies launch behavior-based safety initiatives, management often doesn’t have a solid understanding of human behavior as a science. Therefore, their initiatives may fall flat.

“We want people to work safely; we don’t want people to be safe,” Daniels said. “Being safe is not the goal – it’s working safely, it’s doing things in a safe manner. Those are very different things.”

Related Articles
Activating Higher-Level Safety Culture and Performance
Mind-Shifting Into Safety Excellence
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