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Should Safe Behavior Become a Habit?

July 9, 2013
Be mindful about safety, and give yourself credit for caring about the health and safety of others.

Habits are behaviors that occur spontaneously without any preceding or concurrent thought process. The behavior occurs almost reflexively to external stimuli or events. For many, this is the ultimate goal of a behavior-based safety (BBS) process. 

To the contrary, it's most beneficial to talk to yourself before, during and after your safe behavior. This is not mindless, habitual behavior, but rather a cognitive state called "mindful fluency." 

What is Mindful Fluency?

When we are mindful about our actions, we talk to ourselves in different ways. Before starting a job, we might give ourselves a mental reminder that certain safe behaviors are required. Then we might mentally review our actions while doing the work. Afterwards, we might look back and evaluate our actions.

See Also: Workplace Safety Management Best Practices

A post-behavior, mental script should include personal commendation that a safe behavior was performed, especially when it was inconvenient, uncomfortable or inefficient. If some behavior could have been safer, the mental script should include some suggestions for improvement. 

Benefits of Mindful Behavior

When you actively care for the safety and health of others, give yourself mental credit for such action and become mindful of your good deed. Just like extrinsic reinforcement, self-reinforcement increases the frequency of the behavior it follows.

Research shows that people who reward themselves are more likely to remain self-accountable and improve their performance. This most likely will occur when your positive self-talk is combined with an actual, extrinsic reward like an opportunity to exercise, eat a favorite food, spend money, watch television or attend an entertaining event. When enjoying your self-reward, it's useful to remain mindful of why you deserve it. This justification provides support for a personal label like "actively-caring safety leader."

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of mindful behavior is that it prevents the automatic mode. How many times a day do you put yourself on automatic pilot? Obviously, this kind of mindless, habitual behavior can lead to a serious unintentional error and an injury. Shouldn't we always be talking to ourselves about what we're doing? By avoiding the automatic mode, we prevent those errors and injuries that occur because we were "just not thinking."

Another benefit is that mindful behavior allows for discrimination. It's easy to be on automatic pilot when we're operating in a familiar environment. But what happens when a forklift truck speeds around a corner? We need to discriminate quickly between the normal routine and the suddenly different work context. Mindlessly following the same work routine can prevent this kind of prompt discrimination. 

Mindless behavior also can make us oblivious to gradual changes in the work environment. Equipment leaks or environmental litter can create serious hazards over time. But as creatures of habit, we may not recognize a need to adjust our behavior or fix the environment. When we become more mindful of our everyday activities, we notice these gradual changes.

Being mindful of what we're doing facilitates generalization, the transfer of behavior from one setting to another (stimulus generalization), or a transfer between behaviors (response generalization). With stimulus generalization, we recognize that a particular behavior is useful in another situation. It's the opposite of stimulus discrimination, when we realize a change in the context calls for a different response. Just as habits prevent stimulus discrimination, they also deter stimulus generalization.

Response generalization occurs when the occurrence of one behavior influences the performance of another, similar behavior in the same context. For example, when you mindfully buckle your vehicle safety belt, you might remind yourself to perform a number of other safe-driving behaviors (e.g., use your turn signal, stop completely at intersections and comply with the speed limit). 

Self-Talk Supports Safety Leadership

Suppose your self-talk goes something like this: "I'm not doing this because someone told me to, but because it's the right thing to do, and I need to set a safe example for others." This kind of mental script builds both responsibility and leadership. People at this level of mindfulness hold themselves accountable for following safe operating procedures and are likely to actively care for the safety of others.

Let's look at a simple example of what I'm talking about. Many people claim they automatically buckle up in their vehicles without thinking about it. Such mindless behavior is commendable but not optimal. When you habitually buckle up without self-talk, you lose an opportunity to reward yourself for going out of your way to be safe. Plus, you might not notice that a passenger in your vehicle is not using a safety belt. 

On the other hand, mindful awareness of your own safety belt use, accompanied by complementary self-talk, increases the probability of noticing whether others also are buckled up for safety. And if your mental script supports the self-concept of "responsible safety leader," you likely will actively care for an unbuckled vehicle occupant. You'll ask the individual to buckle up with friendly – rather than controlling – words. Why? Because you want the person to write the kind of mental script that will lead to safety belt use in another vehicle (stimulus generalization) and perhaps the performance of other safety-related behaviors (response generalization).

Bottom line: Talk to yourself about your safety-related behaviors, no matter how routine the task. Such mindfulness prevents human error, facilitates generalization and supports your commitment to actively care for the safety and health of others.

Dr. E. Scott Geller is an alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, a noted author and lecturer and senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions. To learn more, visit or call SPS at 540-951-7233.

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