There’s no doubt that behaviour-based safety (BBS) techniques – the aim of which is to encourage individuals to act safely through fear of punishment and anticipation of reward – do provide effective promotion of safety in the workplace. It has been observed, however, that behaviour-based interventions on their own have limited long-term effect because they don’t result in a continual reduction in safety incidents. This situation is known as the BBS plateau.
A number of explanations for the limitations of BBS have been proposed. One explanation is ‘habituation’, which is our natural ability to adjust to our surroundings and any actions taken towards us. More importantly though, research has found that safety improvements diminish because a purely behavioural approach is driven externally to the individual and bypasses the complexities of personal decision-making and cognitive processing. In many ways, under a BBS approach, individuals are motivated to act safely by fear of repercussion and consequence rather than by a true commitment to safety.
The most effective strategies for workplace safety include components of BBS alongside others that target the internal processes influencing safety behaviours and outcomes. These strategies take the form of an in-depth learning journey aimed at encouraging employees to choose to be safe, and to acknowledge and assess their own safety (independence) and the safety of those around them (interdependence).
Understanding the way people think (and therefore behave) is critical to achieving higher safety standards and requires a basic understanding of cognitive psychology. Put simply, the premise of cognitive psychology is that much of what influences our behaviour occurs ‘below the surface’ in our mental processing. Although behaviours and emotions can be readily observed, there are a number of unobservable mechanisms that interact to give rise to them. These unobservable mechanisms include:Article continues below…
- Learning’, directly related to the principles of BBS, which develops learnt behaviour through conditioning, as discussed above;
- ‘Social influence’, or the social context in which employees operate, including components such as leadership, organisational culture and organisational climate; and,
- ‘Thoughts, values and beliefs,’ the cognitive processes that directly influence behaviours. Although impacted upon by both the ‘learning’ and the ‘social influence’ components, cognitions are also influenced by individual factors such as limited capacity to attend to information.
The role of context and culture: social influences on safety
Social influences have the propensity to change an employee’s thoughts, beliefs and values, which in turn, shape their behaviour. An example of social influence is the organisational culture of a workplace and the style of leadership that governs it.
Organisational culture refers to the set of values, beliefs and accepted behaviours that employees share through symbolic means such as myths, stories, rituals and specialised language. These values and beliefs are the social ‘norms’ within an organisation, and influence the way an individual acts when operating in the social context of that organisation. Culture conveys a sense of identity for employees, and is believed to facilitate a sense of commitment that acts as a mechanism to guide and shape behaviour.
If words like symbolism, myth and ritual sound overly exotic for the average workplace, consider the idiosyncrasies of your own work community: the symbolism of a corporate logo, the myth of how big the first computer hard drive was and the rituals of Melbourne Cup Day, even the drama of the end of month or the financial year.
When an organisation includes safety as a part of its culture, it becomes an entrenched value that is important at an individual and group level. ‘Safety culture’ is the value and priority placed on safety across all levels within an organisation. It refers to the extent to which individuals commit to their personal safety (independence) and to safeguarding others (interdependence). Indeed, the presence of a safety culture is a meaningful predictor of safety performance behaviours, safety knowledge and motivation.
The adaptation of organisational culture to incorporate safety as a core component can foster in employees a personal belief in its importance. The adoption of safety in an organisational culture is heavily reliant on visible, felt leadership. The viability of this approach relies on safety being a line-management responsibility. Leaders need to set the safety vision with clear policies and apply it through continuous development activities and two-way communication.
The role of thoughts, values and beliefs: cognitive influences on safety
Changing the way people think about safety can be a powerful motivator to elicit more adaptive behaviours. As such, the inclusion of processes that encourage employees to re-think their approach to safety can be an effective tool in addressing safety in the workplace. As discussed, social influence and learning principles (BBS) can affect an employee’s thoughts; however, personal influences such as attention span limits and decision-making processes also influence cognition.
Every moment of our lives we are presented with a vast quantity of information. Processing the entirety of it would be mentally exhausting so we focus our attention only on what is most relevant. The brain uses a number of processes to make effective use of all the information it is exposed to. A key attention mechanism is our Reticular Activating System (RAS), which controls what information is attended to and what is ignored.
Understanding the RAS is very important to safety management as it suggests individuals may not always consciously act in an unsafe manner, particularly if their RAS is not engaged or is ‘switched off’ due to conditions of stress, fatigue or similar.
If the RAS is not processing relevant safety information an individual may not be aware of any risk in their behaviour. If safety is instilled as an important component of workplace culture and is a firm personal belief, however, the RAS may be more likely to identify it as ‘important and relevant’ and the individual will be able to maintain more conscious safety.
Decision-making and safety
Feedback is a critical consideration for employees when making changes to behaviour. The Transtheoretical Model of Change, developed by Clinical Psychologists Dr James Prochaska and Dr Carlo DiClemente, has been recognised as one of the most influential approaches in explaining behaviour change and describes it as a series of five stages. These stages are:
1. The Pre-contemplation Stage: individuals do not intend to change. They tend to classify the benefits of their behaviour as outweighing its disadvantages. 2. The Contemplation Stage: individuals develop the intention to change their behaviour in the foreseeable future. They may evaluate the advantages of their behaviour as equal to the disadvantages and as such may be ambivalent about making a change. 3. The Preparation Stage: individuals intend to change their behaviour in the near future. They are prepared for action and the pros for changing behaviour outweigh the cons. 4. The Action Stage: individuals apply processes to modify their behaviour. 5. The Maintenance Stage: individuals work to consolidate any gains made in the action stage to reduce the risk of relapsing into past behaviours.
This model suggests that an individual who has not been provided with an incentive or personal reason to change their behaviour will continue their current behaviours (i.e. not move beyond the Pre-contemplation stage). As such, an integral component in ensuring employees progress from unsafe to safe behaviours is providing a personal and valid reason for making that change. This involves altering an individual’s beliefs and thought patterns regarding the importance and value of safety.
The complete picture: an holistic approach to safety
Although BBS does present a viable approach to managing safety in the workplace, the inclusion of social and cognitive components can provide a richer and more sustainable safety management process. The proposed model, which includes these three components, presents a more holistic approach to ensure employees are more likely to act safely.