Comments are closed. Better safe than sorryOn 1 Sep 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos. The road towards maximum workplace safety needn’t be a slippery slope. Charles Shoesmith explains why you shouldget a grip on reducing the risksWorkplace accidents happen because people take unnecessary risks. However,they do this because there are favourable consequences associated with takingthese risks, which typically involve practical benefits such as saving time andavoiding inconvenience. There may be a ‘macho’ element to the risk-taking,boosting the individual’s perception of their gutsiness or status, perhaps. Butit is important to understand that the perceived, attractive benefits of takingthe risk are real to the individual and easily outweigh the benefits of beingsafe. To reduce the likelihood of these risks being taken, we must focus on theconsequences associated with the unnecessary risk, and present them in a waythat makes the safe alternative become the more appealing proposition. Extensive research by the health and safety sector has proven beyond doubt thata clear correlation exists between safety initiatives and the actual reductionin accidents. These initiatives should set out to achieve all of the followingobjectives: – Continuous improvements in workplace safety – Avoidance of a sense of complacency at all costs – Keeping the need for maximum safety at the forefront of people’s minds These objectives are easily stated, but in practice are not so easilycarried out. Fundamentally, humans have evolved as problem-solvers, toolmakersand fighters, who are at their best when dealing with real, tangiblechallenges. Workers on an oil rig, for example, will be adept at working towards thecommon goal of locating oil, drilling for it and piping it to people who needit. This is a fascinating, tangible challenge and oil workers are renowned fortheir skill at delivering the goods. Nobody working on an oil rig needs to bereminded of how important the process of harvesting oil is for themselves andtheir team-mates. Oil rigs are extremely dangerous places and, ideally, part of theprofessionalism of any rig worker will be continuous awareness of safetymeasures that maximise safety on the rig. But in occupations where the dangers are not so obvious, accident preventionis a much more intangible issue – at least until an accident occurs. And farfrom being seen as fascinating, safety measures are regarded by many employeesas being somewhat uninspiring compared to other work issues, no matter hownecessary those measures are. Behavioural theory suggests people will only produce continual desiredbehaviours if they want to behave in that way. A basic point, obviously, butits implications for maximising safety in the workplace are critical. The principal factor is that you need to give good, solid reasons forbehaving safely at work in a continual way that is essential to achieveworkplace safety goals. This means that traditional methods of improving safety at work –observation of an unsafe act by a manager or colleague, followed by coachingthe employee who committed the unsafe act – are limited in their effectiveness.In practice, this approach is unlikely to succeed in bringing about thesustained behavioural change really needed. Coaching rarely sparks a permanentchange in the employee’s behaviour because it doesn’t address a crucial issue:the need to focus on behavioural and motivational factors at stake inmaximising workplace safety. The first step is to try and remove as many negative consequences associatedwith the safe alternative as possible. At a practical level, this meansensuring the safe behaviour measures are feasible and easy to carry out. The second step is to focus on giving people additional incentives to choosethe safe alternative. In practice, this means providing what is known as ‘extrinsic reinforcement’– making something available which people value, as a reward for carrying outthe safe behaviour. Extrinsic reinforcement is extremely useful for tipping thebalance away from taking the risk. Experience shows that the most effective kind is ‘positive reinforcement’ –using a positive approach to motivate people to develop behavioural habitswhich will maximise safety. Positive reinforcement can create a collaborative,team effort devoted to maximising workplace safety, inevitably creating highlevels of morale. Positive reinforcement also elicits a performance better than the minimumrequired for compliance with safety needs. People are literally positivelymotivated to produce what is known as ‘discretionary performance’ – the extralevel of performance they want to produce. Time and time again, the use ofpositive reinforcement in the workplace does indeed yield discretionaryperformance. To be most effective, positive reinforcement should not be implemented intactical isolation, but as part of a clear strategy directed at maximisingworkplace safety. Furthermore, the emphasis should be targeted in as much asthe focus needs to be on changing behaviours associated with specific incidents.The strategy therefore becomes one where people are positively reinforced forchoosing safe behaviour where they would previously have tended to take anunnecessary risk. So, what kind of specific positive reinforcements should be used? The mosteffective involve some form of ‘social reinforcement’ – which is simplyrecognition given to an individual by a valued peer or manager when they carryout the safe behaviour. Social reinforcement also occurs in situations where an enjoyable time isassociated with some achievement – celebrations are good examples of suchreinforcement, with the emphasis upon providing mutual ‘pats on the back’ and asense of joint accomplishment. Practical experience of implementing positive reinforcement to createcontinuous behaviour shows that delivery must be planned, systematic andapplied in four ways. The first level of application focuses upon individual achievement, andoccurs at the point at which people carry out the safe behaviour in question.This presents an opportunity for observing a person doing the right thing, andopenly recognising this through a positive comment. The important thing is that such recognition can be delivered by anyone –peers, supervisors or managers. For those making the effort to change, thisrecognition can be a very powerful form of encouragement. The second level focuses on group achievement, and involves setting up aframework which enables all members of the team or work group to be recognisedfor progress made during a given period in which the increased incidence ofcritical safe behaviours is measured. Level three is where the entire work group celebrates the achievement of keymilestones – such as fully adopting a safe habit – by taking part in a socialfunction, such as a celebratory dinner, outing or any other valued activity,funded by the organisation. The final level is where this celebrating is enjoyed not only by members ofthe team or work group, but by all members of the organisation. Such acelebration might occur, for example, in response to the collective achievementof a number of critical safe behaviours. Once again, the safety achievementshould be marked by a memorable social event. Providing positive reinforcement in this way can be enormously effective.The social element of the reinforcement is also mutually self-reinforcing, asindividuals quickly reach a point where they are keen not to let theircolleagues down. Furthermore, with the mundane element that is present in mosttypes of work, the appeal of the respite a social celebration can provide isimmense. Quite apart from anything else, it lets people see that maximising safetycan be associated with events that are a fun, welcome break from the usualroutine. Overall, the aim of this approach is to create a new pattern of learnedbehaviour, or a habit. Once the habit is established, the extrinsicreinforcement can be faded out, because the safe behaviour is now driven by theindividual. Habits established across the workforce eventually create cultural definition– this is ‘the way we behave around here’ – with respect to safety. As such, itprovides a powerful behavioural guide for newcomers and visitors. Ideally, to maximise the success of positive reinforcement as a way ofpermanently changing behavioural habits in a desired direction, theorganisation needs to equip itself with all of the following: – A comprehensive and practical understanding of what influences the choiceof safe and unsafe behaviours, to aid the design of future work practices – A method of analysing present behaviour to understand current risk-takingpatterns and inspire intervention strategies – An outline of the key elements required to change unsafe behaviours as thebasis for the design of a ‘change programme’ – A focus on other behaviours which are important for supporting the safetyinitiative – for example, effectively targeting management action – A behavioural emphasis when addressing issues to do with promoting apositive safety climate to increase voluntary effort – An understanding of how to optimise the transfer of learning from thetraining room to the work site, to maximise the effectiveness of training andinduction processes As long as positive reinforcement is used to encourage good habits formaximising safety, the goal of 100 per cent safety is a perfectly reasonableone. Of course, there will be times when the application of negative consequenceswill be appropriate. But the overall issue is one of balance, and researchshows that the emphasis needs to be focused on the delivery of positivereinforcement if long-lasting behavioural change is to occur. Safety happens in the vast majority of cases because people remember theneed to take small but significant actions to improve safety, and want to takethose actions. These actions really matter, because all kinds of safety – from thatinvolved with climbing a mountain, to flying a passenger airliner or keeping aworkplace safe – are invariably a matter of paying attention to detail.Maximising workplace safety depends on doing the simple things well. An enormous improvement in safety can be obtained if people remember to doeveryday things safely, such as holding the handrail when walking down steepsteps, or looking where they are going. It is the neglect of such behavioursthat are associated with the vast majority of accidents. Safety is always a matter of remembering and wanting to carry out all theright small actions that maximise safety, and carrying them out so often thatthey become a habit. Management of positive reinforcement is the best way toinfluence people’s choice of behaviour to lead to these safe habits.