Ireland | english

1 Jan 1970

Latest incidents highlight the importance of Behaviour Based Safety

Occupational safety in organisations has evolved over the years to generate legislation, standards and codes of practice that govern procedures, machinery, processes, and  even manual handling techniques. Even the most regularly assessed workplace boasting the latest safety standards will still suffer safety incidents if people’s actions and behaviour are inappropriate – be they reckless, awkward, ignorant or simply untrained about what is expected of them. A significant percentage of accidents can be linked directly to unsafe behaviour which occurred near to the time of the accident.

In February this year, six workers were killed in an explosion at the Kleen Energy gas power plant in Middletown, Connecticut. Early local reports into the causes suggest that construction deadlines may have over taken safety procedures as a priority: sub contractor workers were said to be working up to ninety hours a week, while reports suggest that the ignition of gas occurred at a highly dangerous purging operation at a time all power is supposed to be turned off. Instead welding, carpentry and pipe grinding activities were apparently still going on. The tragedy of the incident is that it might have been avoided had an awareness of the nature of plant safety been applied.

Since the 1970s the idea that people’s behaviour at work can be changed to adopt safer behaviour  has come to dominate approaches to safety in the workplace and with some justification. The approach is now so pervasive and so successful that it’s easy to consider it the norm, but it is a relatively recent approach and based on more than mere common sense.
Such behavioural safety systems programmes typically involve:

• the identification of behaviours by trained observers which could or have contributed to accidents (and which are agreed by management and employees)

• a system of ongoing observation and information collection that allows for peer-to-peer interventions, to improve identified behaviours and to identify corrective actions

• based on observations of behaviours by trained observers the reinforcement of such behaviours based on constructive feedback.

Behaviour modification techniques and the resulting Behavioural Safety Systems emerged from an attempt to reduce workplace accidents, and in the original study, now forty years old, researchers focused on a US bakery with a high rate of onsite safety incidents. In a workplace where no safety culture or emphasis on safe behaviour existed, researchers measured baseline levels of safe behaviour and workers were given two 30 minute training sessions that placed most emphasis on demonstrating unsafe behaviours. From those sessions the workers emerged sufficiently motivated to agree to work towards a 90% safe behaviour goal and within a year had reduced their incidents rate by 50%.

Encouraging people to behave safely by regular training and feedback is the typical approach now taken, and when carried out correctly it can make a huge contribution to workplace safety. As with most organisational initiatives, success in cultivating such desired behaviours has been shown to depend on genuine commitment from the top and organisations that showed a sincere commitment from leadership fared best.

Three principles underpin the behavioural approach:

1. that behaviours can be measured

2. that they are a function of its consequences (that behaviours are re-enforced by the results they generate e.g. they take a habitual short cut in the procedure because ‘it’s a short-cut’) 

3. behaviour can be changed by providing re-enforcement and feedback.

In practical terms this means discouraging risk-taking behaviour by creating a culture of safety by commenting on such behaviour every time it occurs and publically acknowledging desired behaviour.

There is still a difference from merely getting people to acknowledge or agree the importance of safety at work and actually getting to act and behave consistently regarding it, however.

Behavioural Based Safety Programmes hinges on the links between Attitudes Behaviours and Consequences – i.e. the notion that what people think will have an impact on what they do and how they behave. And while a link in how Attitudes might have an impact on Behaviours may seem entirely logical, perhaps surprisingly is that the far stronger link is the other way around – Behaviour is far more likely to determine - and reinforce - Attitude than visa versa. So if people consciously change their behaviours their attitudes are likely to change as result, which is likely to have more of a long term effect on their behaviours in the future. 

According to this approach, changing people’s attitudes, by changing their behaviours is more likely to result in changes in how they behave than changing their attitudes alone, which is likely to result in fewer incidents at work.

In essence then, the context or culture of the organisation will exert a massive influence over its safety record by re-enforcing behaviours that take safety into account.  Focusing on the mechanics of safety alone – i.e. focusing on machinery or constantly re-designing processes will be insufficient in ensuring a lower total incident rate. Placing a guard on a piece of machinery for example, will not in itself be enough to ensure its safe operation, unless the operator clearly understands its purpose, how the machine works, how the machine guard works and how accidents might occur if the machine guard is missing. In summary then Awareness through training, the absolute commitment of site leadership and ongoing measurement of behaviours ("what gets measured gets managed”), will ensure ever-improving safety results.

More recent thinking and literature in the area of organisational safety has warned of a potential scapegoating of frontline staff, due to the dominance of the behavioural approach and its tendency to focus excessively on human error and consequently neglect faults in process design. Trevor Kletz in Learning from Accidents (2001) writes that: "Managers and designers, it seems, are either not human or do not make errors.” As occurs frequently in a so called ‘no-blame’ safety culture the investigating managers frequently want to know the name of the person (the usual suspect) whom ‘they are not blaming’.

Improved behaviours will in no way compensate for inadequately designed engineering processes or safety systems. Both approaches are complimentary ones combining engineering and human behaviours which dovetail together to provide a safer workplace.

As with so many issues in management, all factors need to taken into account and safety procedures will not be enough in themselves to assure safe outcomes – the hearts and minds of employees must also be ‘engaged’ to ensure that safe behaviours deliver safe processes that prevent both small and bigger tragedies, like the latest Middleton incident, from ever occurring.

If you wish to examine you own organisations Behaviour Based Safety please contact Pilz for an executive summary of our consulting service. We would be happy to discuss how we can assist.

Call us at 021 434 65 35 or email


Pilz Ireland
Cork Business and Technology Park, Model Farm Road

Telephone: +353 21 4346535

Press contact