The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention (Part 3): The Thinking and Seeing Components of People-Based Safety

Dec. 22, 2006
At workshops and keynote addresses on people-based safety (PBS), I often ask the audience whether they buckle their vehicle safety belts automatically, without thinking. Most raise their hands to affirm their buckle-up habit for safety.

by E. Scott Geller, Ph.D.

My reaction: That's good, but not great. It would be better to think about what you're doing while fastening your safety belt.

Conscious competence is usually better than unconscious competence, especially when the behavior is safety-related. This perspective deviates markedly from the philosophy of behavior-based safety (BBS). As covered in the two previous articles in this series, BBS promotes the development of safe habits as a primary objective of applying BBS tools.

Thinking Safe Behavior

Thinking is self-talk or internal verbal behavior. I advise my audiences to tell themselves what they are doing when they perform a safety-related behavior. For the safety belt example, self-talk that acknowledges the behavior is recommended: "I'm buckling up for safety."

When safe behavior is accomplished for positive consequences, it also is beneficial to verbalize the rationale for the behavior. What are your personal reasons for choosing safe behavior? For safety belt use, you might say to yourself: "I'm buckling up to do the right thing for safety - to be a competent driver." Or you might say: "I'm buckling up to set the safe example for other passengers in my vehicle, and for anyone else who might see me driving."

It's possible, however, that your safe behavior is not self-directed, but other-directed. In other words, you might be working safely because someone other than yourself is holding you accountable. For example, some might buckle up to avoid a fine, as implicated by the popular U.S. slogan: "Click it or ticket."

When safe behavior is other-directed, one's self-talk should not include the external controls influencing the behavior. Until people can give a self-directed rationale, they should only tell themselves they are performing the behavior. It's useful to forget the external, other-directed reasons for one's safe behavior. Here's why.

Self-Direction and Self-Accountability

When people are mindful about their behavior they are more likely to avoid human error.1 Self-talk enables the adjustment of behavior per situational factors. It could call your attention to other people not following your safe example, such as a passenger in your vehicle who is not buckled up.

This behavior-based self-talk increases a person's awareness of the best way to perform under certain circumstances. But there is a more profound reason for thinking about one's safe behavior. Self-talk influences self-persuasion2, which in turn enhances self-accountability for safety. Indeed, people hold themselves accountable by talking to themselves. What kind of safety self-talk builds self-accountability or responsibility for safety?

Outside vs. Inside Control

The reasons people give for their behaviors determine the degree to which their behaviors are other-directed or self-directed - whether they are accountable to others or accountable to themselves. This is not an all-or-none state. People can be motivated by both outside and inside controls. But the more their behavior is directed and motivated from within themselves, the more apt they are to perform the behavior when alone and only accountable to themselves. This is the ideal safety state for lone workers.

How do people put themselves in this state? They talk themselves into being self-accountable. Some situations facilitate this thinking; some do not. In general, self-accountability thinking decreases as the degree of external negative control increases (as in severe threats and strong enforcement), and people's perception of personal choice decreases3. Also, the more a behavior aligns with our perception of who we are - our core values - the greater the self-accountability for that behavior.4


Who do you think you are? In other words, what kind of person are you? Do you hold safety as a core value? How do you know?

Our behavior defines us. However, there are exceptions. When we feel our behavior is controlled entirely by external factors, we do not view that behavior as a reflection of who we are5.

When people perceive their behavior as self-directed, they use that behavior to define their attitudes and values. In other words, the behaviors people choose to perform provide information for their self-perception. These behaviors certainly are motivated by expected consequences, both intrinsic and extrinsic. The key is to perceive some degree of choice, and perceptions of choice are stifled by enforcement or negative reinforcement contingencies, as when individuals act in a certain way to avoid negative consequences6.

Thus, our self-directed behavior informs our self-perception and our core values. And self-perception and personal values influence our behavior. People strive for their behavior to be consistent with their values, and vice versa.

When people perceive an inconsistency between behavior and the values that define them, they experience tension or cognitive dissonance7. They direct their self-talk to reduce this negative state.

Bottom line: The rationale people provide themselves for performing safe behavior determines whether they feel self-accountable and will continue to perform that behavior in the absence of an external accountability system. The PBS approach teaches the kind of thinking needed to develop self-accountability, as well as the kinds of environmental/management conditions/systems needed to promote and support self-accountability thinking.

The Seeing of People-Based Safety

As discussed in Part 2 of this series, PBS teaches the platinum rule - "Treat others as they want to be treated." This principle is founded on the need to understand the perceptions of others before making intervention decisions that impact their lives.

To illustrate this perspective, I tell audiences a memorable experience I had in third grade. My teacher called me to the front of the class to recognize me for the superb job I did on my homework assignment. Later, several classmates beat me up on the playground.

I did not want public recognition in the classroom, but my teacher did not see the classroom situation as I did. She meant well, but did not consider my perceptions before implementing her intervention. Understanding workers' perceptions is a critical challenge of PBS, both when developing and delivering a process to support safe behavior and/or to correct at-risk behavior.

Perception surveys are useful in assessing workers' views of safety at their facilities, both before and after the implementation of a process to improve safety-related behavior. Pre-intervention surveys inform the design of intervention strategies, and comparisons of pre- and post-intervention surveys estimate the diverse impact of an intervention on people's perceptions, attitudes and values.

Safety Performance Solutions, for example, has been applying the same comprehensive perception survey for over a decade, and thus has a database of more than 8.5 million safety-related perceptions across a broad range of industries worldwide. These culture surveys are invaluable for benchmarking, and for customizing intervention strategies for various types of operations within a particular work culture.

Bottom line: People's views of safety-related issues vary widely and should be considered when designing and evaluating procedures for improving safety performance. Let's consider the power of perception in influencing safety-related behavior.

Risk Perception

Researchers have identified a number of psychological factors that influence an individual's perception of risk and safety-related behavior8. High on this list is the role of familiarity. The more experience we have regarding a potential risk, the less risk we perceive.

You can appreciate this principle by recalling your safety-related behaviors when you first started to drive a vehicle and comparing them with your current driving. As experience increases one's perception of control, the possibility of risk-taking also increases.

Under the thinking component addressed above, the importance of perceived choice when transitioning from other-directed accountability to self-directed responsibility was discussed. Here, consider how less risky those hazards we choose to experience seem (on the road, in the workplace and during recreation) compared to those hazards we feel compelled to endure (like worldwide terrorism, food preservatives, environmental pollution and earthquakes).

Most practical from an intervention perspective is the observation that perceived risk is raised more easily with individual case examples than group statistics. This suggests a shift in format for group safety presentations.

Specifically, safety meetings and interventions should focus on individual experiences rather than numbers. This implies a need for the work culture to encourage the public reporting of close calls and injury experiences. When people hear the personal perceptions and regrets of the recipients of a workplace injury, they imagine themselves in a similar unfortunate circumstance. Their perception of risk is thereby enhanced, and safe behavior is more apt to occur.

Reasons People Take Risks

A Just and Fair World - The common belief in a just and fair world9 has intriguing implications for industrial safety. It's likely this perception contributes to the common perspective: "It won't happen to me." Since most people believe they essentially are good and therefore undeserving of a bad-luck injury, they expect the "other guy" to get hurt on the job - not them. Everyday experiences usually support this perception. Injuries do happen, but not to most individuals, even when they take risks.

Also, the public generally perceives workplace injuries as justifiable. They are indiscriminately distributed among workers who take risks, and thus deserve what they get. This perception lessens the outrage people feel when someone gets hurt on the job.

Furthermore, the benefits of risky work behaviors are obvious to all - from individual comfort, convenience and efficiency to increased output. Aren't injuries just the cost of doing business? This public perception can make it difficult to get financial resources for corporate safety efforts.

Perceptions of Protection - When you feel protected, do you take more risks? Many people do. Such increased risk-taking is due to perception. People presumably accept a certain level of risk, which varies widely across individuals. This perception is influenced by a number of factors, from personality characteristics to prior training and experience. When their perception of risk changes, people change their behavior accordingly10.

The implication of this phenomenon is that making a job safer with machine guards or PPE lowers people's risk perception and thus can lead to an increase in at-risk behavior. This change in perception and behavior as a function of protection is intuitive and is supported with sound field research11. However, the increase in risk-taking and injuries does not negate the benefits of the protection. For example, although football players increase their at-risk behaviors when suited up with protective gear, they sustain far fewer injuries than they would without the PPE.

Since risk perceptions and safety-related behavior are influenced by the use of protective devices, safety leaders need to be aware of this phenomenon and adjust their training programs and coaching procedures accordingly. For example, when safety guards or PPE are added to a work task, behavioral observers should be alert to the possibility of extra risk-taking related to the behaviors protected by the new safety equipment.

Perceive and Seize the Moment - One particular safety-related perception contributes to many injuries. It is a perceptual orientation that makes many people injury prone. Specifically, the Type A personality12 combined with a need-to-achieve attitude13 facilitate a future-oriented mindset that gives too much attention to the future and too little on the present. These individuals, including the author, are relatively less likely to "stop and smell the roses."

Perceiving and seizing the moment means being mindful and attentive to our ongoing behavior in every respect. In this state, people are using all relevant senses to recognize what they are doing and where they are doing it. Their antennae are fully extended, enabling them to fully encounter the present. Now that's a perceptual orientation that surely decreases the probability of a mishap.


This three-part overview of PBS focused on showing how this approach embraces the human dynamics of safety, beyond those addressed by BBS. This includes observing behaviors and giving feedback - the tools of BBS. But PBS is much broader in scope than defining behaviors, handing in observation cards and giving feedback. To improve workplace safety, PBS builds and strengthens feelings of self-efficacy, personal control, optimism and belongingness. For employees to work safely over the long haul, often without direct supervision, personal pride, dignity and self-respect must be nurtured. View your organization as a family of people working together. This is a key aspect of PBS. We perceive our family members as people with their own unique set of feelings and beliefs, and we never hesitate to actively care for their health and safety.

But we must do more than respect people for the individuals they are. We must act on our feelings if we want to improve safety. Actively caring behavior is essential to the success of PBS. Actively caring behavior in an organization increases directly with the number of employees, including managers, who view their co-workers as family. Bottom line: PBS facilitates the successive approximations of a family atmosphere in the workplace.



1. Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Adderson-Wesley; Norman, D. A. (1998). The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

2. Aronson, E. (1999). The Power of Self-Persuasion. American Psychologist, 54, 875-884.

3. Lepper, M., & Green, D. (1978). The Hidden Cost of Reward. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

4. Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-Perception Theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental social Psychology (Vol. 6), (pp. 1-60). New York: Academic Press.

5. Ibid

6. Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

7. Festinger, L. A. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

8. Slovic, P. (1991). Beyond Numbers: A Broader Perspective on Risk Perception and Risk Communication. In D. G. Mayo & R. D. Hollander (Eds.). Deceptable Evidence: Science and Values in Risk Management (pp.48-65), New York: Oxford University Press.

9. Lerner, M.J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York: Plenum.

10. Adams, J. (1995). Risk. London: UCI Press; Wilde, G. J. S. (1994). Target risk. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: PEE Publications.

11. Janssen, W. (1994). Seat-belt Wearing and Driving Behavior: An Instrumented-Vehicle Study. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 26, 277-287; Streff, F. M., & Geller, E. S. (1988). An experimental test of risk compensation: Between-subject versus within-subject analysis. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 26, 277-287.

12. Jenkins, C. D., Zyanski, S. J., & Roseman, R. H. (1979). Jenkins Activity Survey. Cleveland, OH: Psychological Corp.

13. Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational Determinants of Risk-Taking Behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359-372, 1957; Atkinson, J. W. (1964). An introduction to motivation. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the Department of Psychology. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the World Academy of Productivity and Quality. Geller has authored 27 books, 42 book chapters, 38 training manuals, 192 magazine articles and more than 300 research articles.

About the Author

E. Scott Geller Ph.D. | Director, Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the Department of Psychology

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the Department of Psychology. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the World Academy of Productivity and Quality. He is past editor of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (1989-92), current associate editor (since 1983) of Environment and Behavior and consulting editor for Journal of Safety Research, Behavior and Social Issues, Behavior Analyst Digest and the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. Geller has authored 27 books, 42 book chapters, 38 training manuals, 192 magazine articles and more than 300 research articles addressing the development and evaluation of behavior-change interventions to improve quality of life.

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