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The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention (Part 2)

Whether employees are in a group or working alone, the acting and coaching components of people-based safety can have a positive impact on the safety culture.

by E. Scott Geller, Ph.D.

In my article last month, I discussed the human dynamics of injury prevention by revising the research-based principles of people-based safety (PBS), and contrasted this approach with behavior-based safety (BBS) - a popular and effective way to prevent workplace injuries.1

The PBS process is not a substitute for BBS, but rather an evolution for greater acceptance and effectiveness. The components of PBS discussed in this second of a three-part series reflect the essence of BBS.

The four skill components of PBS are acting, coaching, thinking and seeing - ACTS.2 In a total safety culture, people act for injury prevention; coach one another to identify barriers to safe acts and provide constructive behavior-based feedback; think in ways that activate and support safe behavior; and focus and scan to see the hazards.

The Acting of People-Based Safety

It's fitting that the components of PBS spell "acts," because safety depends upon the actions of people. Various principles and procedures of PBS target attitudes, perceptions and thoughts. But if improvement in these areas does not result in relevant behavior change, there is no benefit to occupational safety.

Because behavior change is the bottom line, BBS has prevented workplace injuries in many organizations through the successful implementation of an interpersonal observation and feedback process. But what about the many times people work or drive alone?

The PBS approach adds to BBS by teaching ways to implement self-coaching and increase self-accountability for safety. In this regard, it's critical to understand the three forms of voluntary behavior - other-directed, self-directed and habitual.3

A BBS observation-and-feedback process initiates and sustains other-directed behavior. Workers increase safe behavior and decrease at-risk behavior because others - their peers - hold them accountable. With continued application of this coaching process, proponents of BBS hope safe behavior transitions from other-directed to habitual. This objective reveals some critical distinctions between PBS and BBS.

Self-Direction is Key

Coaching is a key component of PBS, as discussed later in this article, but interpersonal coaching is not sufficient. People often are alone in situations that require safe substitutions for at-risk behavior, and thus they need to coach themselves. This requires self-accountability and self-directed behavior. In other words, people need to believe in and own the safe way of doing things, even when the more risky approach is supported by soon, certain and positive consequences like more comfort, convenience and efficiency.

Self-direction requires internal justification for the right behavior. This happens when the external consequences supporting an action are not sufficient to totally justify the behavior. Too often, people choose safe over at-risk acts only to obtain a reward or avoid a penalty. Programs that establish such contingencies often get the desired behavior while this accountability system is in place. But what happens when the external controls are unavailable?

The principles and procedures of PBS help people develop internal self-accountability for safety, which leads to self-directed behavior - the optimal form for safety-related activities. The key is not to over-justify safe behavior with large incentives and severe threats, but to provide education, training and experience that help people develop a sense of personal control over injury prevention.4 This includes an understanding that habits can be undesirable when it comes to industrial safety and health.

Safe Habits Are Not Ideal

The development of safe habits is a key objective of BBS. According to leading BBS trainers and consultants, the daily repetition of an observation-and-feedback process builds "habit strength," eventually resulting in the development of safe habits. This is good, but not great. Habits occur without mental awareness or thoughts, as when one buckles a vehicle safety belt without thinking about it.

Is there a disadvantage to putting oneself in automatic mode when the habit is safe? What if your buckle-up behavior is so habitual you don't notice a passenger in your vehicle is not buckled up? You could miss an opportunity to actively care for the safety of another person. Furthermore, you miss an opportunity to develop self-talk or thinking that supports self-direction and self-accountability.

The connection between self-talk strategies and self-directed behavior will be explained in the third part of this series when I introduce the thinking component of PBS. Here it's pertinent to understand and believe in the value of accompanying our safe actions with relevant self-talk, even when the behavior is routine. It should be self-evident that self-directed or mindful behavior is more desirable than mindless, habitual behavior,5 especially when the behavior is relevant to safety.

Stimuli Do Not Trigger Voluntary Behavior

Many BBS trainers, consultants and students claim that certain environmental cues "trigger" safe behavior. This language, and the accompanying dialogue, implies that stimuli elicit or cause safety-related behavior to occur. This is not true.

Some stimulus events cause involuntary behavior, as when the flashing blue lights of a state trooper trigger certain emotional reactions. This reflects classical conditioning of involuntary behavior.6 But, drivers choose to slow down and pull over. Similarly, traffic lights do not trigger or cause driving behavior at an intersection, although they may cause an emotional rush following a driver's decision to speed through an intersection as the light changes from yellow to red.

Bottom line: There is a space between the stimulus (or activator) and voluntary behavior. Activators provide direction, but people choose whether to follow the direction. This choice is largely determined by perceived consequences and their relative importance to the individual. What positive consequence does the person expect to gain or what negative consequence does the person expect to avoid?

This is the standard ABC (activator - behavior - consequence) principle of BBS reviewed in the first article of this series. However, PBS views this principle with consideration of the individual's beliefs, perceptions and attitudes.

The People-Based ABC Principle

The term "positive reinforcement" often is overused and abused by trainers and students of BBS. They seem to believe any pleasant consequence, from a monetary bonus to safety trinkets and interpersonal recognition, is a positive reinforcer. However, a consequence is a reinforcer (positive or negative) only if it increases the behavior it follows.7

Trainers and students of PBS realize the reinforcing power of a consequence is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, attitudes and perceptions determine the motivating potential of a consequence. For example, the meaning of a "safety trinket" to an individual determines whether such a consequence is viewed as positive, negative or neutral and could motivate behavior.8

It is usually impossible to determine whether the delivery of a consequence actually influences the behavior it follows. Thus, the loose use of "positive reinforcement" among BBS consultants and students is risky and often inappropriate. With PBS this mistake is not made. The term "positive reinforcement" is not used in PBS, and the impact of positive consequences on feelings or person states is entertained and appreciated, even if there is no direct behavioral impact.

In PBS, positive consequences are considered "rewards" and negative consequences are "penalties." If these consequences don't impact overt behavior, they will at least influence feeling states, and this is important in PBS. With PBS, rewards are delivered to increase self-esteem and perceptions of personal competence and control, as well as to improve behavior. In fact, research shows these feeling states increase people's willingness to actively care for the safety and health of others.9 Thus, PBS applications of the ABC principle are directed to both external behaviors and internal person states.

The Coaching of People-Based Safety

Imagine a workplace where everyone feels empowered to eliminate the environmental hazards within their domain of influence, and report those hazards they cannot control themselves. Also, imagine supervisors and line workers regularly coaching each other regarding the occurrence of safe and at-risk behavior.

More specifically, employees use behavioral checklists to observe each other's work practices and then share the results of these systematic behavioral observations in one-to-one "actively caring" conversations. This constructive feedback session includes a presentation of the safe and at-risk behaviors observed, as well as a list of workplace conditions (including management factors) that may encourage at-risk behavior or hinder safe behavior.

No directive for change is given in these interpersonal coaching conversations. The person observed is merely shown the results of the observation session, and given opportunities to explore conditions that may influence at-risk behavior. The observation checklists of a work team are returned to a designated location. They include only the name of the observers. Groups of cards are compiled, analyzed and "percent safe scores" are graphed for group feedback. Plus, the safety-related concerns and suggestions written on the cards are summarized in reports to relevant work teams and management personnel.10

Question: Would this scenario prevent occupational injuries? Common sense says "Yes." Actually, there is considerable research and real-world outcome statistics to support this answer, thereby supporting the power of this process that is the essence of BBS.11 Coaching also is a critical component of PBS, but PBS extends the standard behavioral approach in some important ways, as reviewed next.

Actively Caring is Most Important

The upstream leading indicators obtained from one-to-one safety coaching are invaluable. At-risk behaviors and environmental conditions needing special attention are identified, and safe behaviors worthy of recognition are noted. The numbers gained from this process enable proactive management of safety-related behaviors.

However, the human dynamics of safety are more complex than marks on a behavioral checklist, as revealed in the discussion above on the challenge of achieving a transition from other-directed to self-directed behavior. Managers use behavioral data to hold people accountable; leaders use the PBS process to inspire people to hold themselves accountable.12 How? By putting special focus on the actively caring process of interpersonal safety coaching.

Everyone Coaches

You can obtain upstream behavioral numbers by assigning coaching duties to a select sample of a work force. Thus, some BBS consultants have advocated training a small percentage (e.g., 10 percent) of the line employees to be safety coaches. This approach can save both time and money, and is "sold" on the appearance of efficiency.

It also is easier and more efficient to exclude management from the coaching process. Thus, a number of BBS consultants have trained only the hourly work force to conduct behavioral observation and feedback sessions. But these efficient shortcuts limit the development of self-accountability and can have only short-term benefits, as reflected in the common "pencil-whipping" label given to many of these BBS programs.

The PBS vision is that everyone coaches for safety - managers and line workers alike. Why? Because coaching develops the self-directed accountability needed for long-term impact of a behavioral coaching process. Coaches feel obligated to adopt the principles and procedures they teach and advocate. But, of course, such large-scale interpersonal coaching requires substantial trust-building - a critical PBS skill.13

Depending on the work culture, especially the level of interpersonal trust, it might be necessary to start with a select number of coaches and to exclude managers from this process. But with PBS, everyone learns the principles and procedures of behavior-based observation and feedback, with the expectation all employees will eventually coach each other for injury prevention.

Safety Coaching Can Be Informal

The PBS approach teaches and advocates both "formal" and "informal" coaching. Whereas formal coaching parallels the standard BBS application of a critical behavior checklist, informal coaching involves brief interpersonal conversations to maintain daily attention to the safe and risky behaviors and conditions throughout a workplace. By focusing on the process more than checklists and numbers, PBS increases the quantity and quality of informal coaching. This leads to self-coaching, an essential safety process for the lone worker.14

Empathy is Essential

Students of PBS learn the limitations of the golden rule - "Treat others as you want to be treated." They aim for the platinum rule - "Treat others as they want to be treated." The difference between these two philosophies is dramatic, and reflects the essence of empathy.

It may be efficient to assume people want the same things you want and to act accordingly. However, it's more effective to discover other people's needs and perceptions before choosing a treatment or intervention approach. Even when the eventual tactic is the same as the one you would have selected, because you asked first, you can expect greater acceptance, appreciation and ownership.

Empathy plays a significant role in almost every component of PBS, from empathic listening to empathic leadership. The Platinum Rule is especially pertinent for PBS coaching. Like client-centered or humanistic therapy,15 the focus is on the perceptions and feelings of the individual being coached. Behavior and environmental conditions are observed from this individual's perspective, and feedback communication is supportive and nondirective. Feedback is not delivered to direct or even suggest behavior change, but rather to empower personal responsibility and self-accountability.

A Concluding Comment

This second part of a three-part series on PBS reviewed the basic tools of BBS - behavioral analysis and interpersonal coaching - but showed special features of the PBS approach that makes it more effective and longer-lasting than traditional BBS. At the heart of PBS is the need for people to view each other as people - rather than as objects or a means to an end. And in safety, people can indeed turn into objects - statistics on record-keeping forms, signatures on policies or a BBS numbers game of counting the observations.

People-based safety requires a very sincere and honest appreciation of other people. It requires an understanding and acceptance of the internal feelings, needs and perceptions of other people. Each person's uniqueness is recognized and appreciated.

The last article in this three-part series will explain these inner dimensions of people, as defined and applied by PBS to address the human dynamics of injury prevention.


1Sulzer-Azaroff, B., and Austin, J. (2005). "Does BBS Work? Behavior-Based Safety and Injury Reduction: A Survey of the Evidence." Professional Safety, 45(7), 19-24.

2Geller, E. S. (2005). People-Based Safety: The Source. Virginia Beach, Va.: Coastal Training Technologies Corp., 2005b.

3Watson, D. C., and Tharp, R. C. (1997). Self-Directed Behavior: Self-Modification for Personal Adjustment (Seventh Edition), Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

4Lepper, M., and Green, D. (1978). The Hidden Cost of Reward. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

5Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Adderson-Wesley.

6Chance, P. (1999). Learning and Behavior (Fourth Edition). Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/ Cole Publishing Co.

7Daniels, A. (1989). Performance Management. Tucker, Ga.: Performance Management Publications.

8Geller, E. S. (2005). "LiveStrong Lessons: The Story and Meaning of a Wristband." Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, 39(2). p. 12.

9Batson, C. D., Bolen, M. H., Cross, J. A., and Neuringer-Benefiel, H. E. (1986). "Where Is Altruism in the Altruistic Personality?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 212-220; Geller, E. S., Roberts, D. S., and Gilmore, M. R. (1996). "Predicting Propensity to Actively Care for Occupational Safety." Journal of Safety Research, 27, 1-8; Michelini, R. L., Wilson, J. P., and Messe, L. A. (1975). The Influence of Psychological Needs on Helping Behavior. The Journal of Psychology, 91, 253-258; Wilson, J. P. (1976). "Motivation, Modeling and Altruism: A Person X Situation Analysis." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 1078-1086.

10Geller, E. S. (1995). "Safety Coaching: The Key to Achieving a Total Safety Culture." Professional Safety, 40(7), 16-22.

11Sulzer-Azaroff, B., and Austin, J. (2000). Does BBS Work? "Behavior-Based Safety and Injury Reduction: A Survey of the Evidence." Professional Safety, 45(7), 19-24.

12Geller, E.S. (2000). "Ten Leadership Qualities for a Total Safety Culture: Safety Management Is Not Enough." Professional Safety, 45(5), 38-41.

13Geller, E. S. (1999). "Interpersonal Trust: Key to Getting the Best from Behavior-Based Safety Coaching." Professional Safety, 44(4), 16-19.

14Geller, E. S., and Clarke, S. W. (1999). "Safety Self-Management: A Key Behavior-Based Process for Injury Prevention." Professional Safety, 44(7), 29-33.

15Rogers, C. (1957). "The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change." Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, 95-103; Rogers, C. (1977). Carl Rogers on Personal Power: Inner Strength and its Revolutionary Impact. New York: Delacorte.

16Wilson, J. P. (1976). "Motivation, Modeling and Altruism: A Person X Situation Analysis." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 1078-1086.

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 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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