Motivating Employees to Accept a Behavioral Safety Process

Industrial Safety and Hygiene News - July 1997
By: Terry Mathis, ProAct Safety

Is behavioral safety just another way to blame workers for accidents? I have fielded this question in one form or another almost every time I have talked to workers or union leaders about behavioral safety. Because behavioral safety is dependent on the participation of motivated employees to make it effective, such perceptions can seriously jeopardize the success of the process. What causes some people to perceive that behavioral safety is a blame-the-worker program? Just the name "behavioral" seems to point the finger of blame at the workers. Several other factors also contribute to the perception that behavioral safety is about blame.

Most approaches to behavioral safety include references to studies from the DuPont Company or the National Safety Council which indicate that the "causes" of most industrial accidents (up to 96% in some studies) are the "unsafe acts" of workers. According to these studies, very few industrial accidents are caused by "unsafe conditions." This terminology has unfortunately contributed to misunderstanding.

A closer look at the methodology used in these studies indicates that they were aimed at finding methods of prevention rather than finding the "root cause" of accidents. If accidents could be prevented or lessened in severity by the action of any employee, the accidents were classified as "caused by unsafe acts." The fact that accidents can be behaviorally prevented doesn't necessarily mean that behavior is the root cause of the accident. These studies have fueled the perception that the behaviors of workers are to blame for accidents.

Many sites have a past history of what I call the "plane-crash mentality." For years, when the FAA and NTSB investigated a plane crash they always classified the accident as either a mechanical failure or pilot error. Many plants also only consider these two alternatives when they investigate accidents. This practice sends workers looking for unsafe conditions to justify their actions and investigators looking for the individual behavior, which caused the accident. Consequently, when management announces that the plant is going to implement "behavioral safety," many workers instantly conclude that unsafe conditions will no longer be corrected and workers will now be automatically blamed for all accidents.

In addition, we have learned from Statistical Process Control (SPC) that when systems are in statistical control (the variation is within control limits), defects (undesired results) do not have a special cause; they are common to the system. The same principle we learned in quality is true of safety. If accidents (undesired results) are in statistical control, the causes of accidents are not special, one-time behaviors or conditions, but common ones to the system. When we investigate to find special cause, we insinuate that workers have done something unusually dangerous and are to blame for accidents.

The behavioral observation process, which is an integral part of behavioral safety, involves having workers watch each other at work and identifying practices which influence accidents. Observations are sometimes viewed as a form of "spying" by many workers who have not actually seen behavioral safety in action. The old practice of sending the "safety cops" through the workplace to find rule-breakers and punish them has left its mark. Workers in some companies are suspicious of anyone watching them work and automatically assume that the only reason to watch is to find fault and place blame. One other factor that can create the perception that behavioral safety is a blame-the-worker process is that occasionally the perception is true. The impetus to implement a behavioral safety initiative sometimes does come from the assumption that workers are to blame for accidents. If a behavioral approach to accident reduction is going to work at a plant, both the perception and the reality of blame need to be addressed.

One approach for overcoming the problem of blame involves performance management. Performance management is based on the rationalization that behavior doesn't occur on its own in organizations; it is most often triggered by powerful organizational forces. W. Edwards Deming said that behavior is determined by the system in which it takes place. Too often the mistake is made to try to change behaviors without addressing the forces that influence them. If such behavior changes occur, they are almost always temporary. Isolated training programs are a common example of this.

Here is a performance management blueprint that can prevent the behavioral safety effort from becoming a blaming process:

  1. PRE-IMPLEMENTATION STEPS If you have not yet begun your behavioral safety program, you can take steps to keep it from falling into the blaming trap:

    • Perform a thorough assessment of the site prior to beginning a safety improvement effort. Analyze accident data to determine whether or not accident frequency is in statistical control. You may need the help of a statistician or a computer program on statistics. If accident frequency is in statistical control, reduction in accident frequency will likely necessitate changes in one or more of the systems, which influence worker's behaviors.
    • Measure perceptions through surveys and discussion groups, which explore current safety practices and worker's openness to new methods. Any tendencies toward the blaming mindset will usually come to light during such research. Problem areas discovered in the assessment can be addressed before implementing the behavioral safety process. (A complete guide and forms for an Organizational Safety Assessment can be found in the book, Developing A Safety Culture, JJ Keller, 1996.)
    • Make sure observational data is kept confidential and cannot be used for any punitive purpose.
    • Alert members of behavioral safety teams that the blaming mindset is a potential problem and that it should be anticipated and managed. Setting this level of expectation helps team members put the problem in the proper perspective and prevents the feeling of ambush when and if the problem arises. Assign a management liaison to the team so that problems can be referred directly to management without having to go through the "lines of authority."
  2. IMPLEMENTATION STEPS During implementation, the whole organization needs to be part of the process:

    • Every level, area, and department can define and fulfill a role in either the operation or the support of the behavioral effort. Such involvement requires

      1. a thorough understanding of the process and
      2. training in the basics of the behavioral approach.
    • During the initial training, hold management briefings to address the problem of blaming and explain how it can damage the process. Focus attention on prevention and away from punishment.
  3. POST-IMPLEMENTATION STEPS After the behavioral safety effort has been implemented; the organization should be focused toward support:

    • Identify the ways in which the organization supports safe behavior. Enhance and enrich these programs and practices.
    • Look for organizational structures, rules, and job descriptions that encourage blaming and punitive actions. Redirect these toward habitual and repeat offenders and away from the average worker trying to be safe.
    • Use observation data to determine the reasons why workers take risks. Some of these reasons will be organizational influences. Identify and work to remove organizational influences, which discourage safe behaviors.
    • Publicize your successes in this area so workers see progress and are aware of new organizational guidelines and structures. Seeing improvements in the organization based on observational data also supercharges observers and motivates them.

Prevention is the best cure for the blaming problem, but some organizations have already implemented behavioral safety and were not forewarned about the blaming problem. If your behavioral safety program is under way and you find that it is becoming a blaming process, here are some steps you can take to correct the problem:

  • Acknowledge that there is a problem and assure workers that it will be solved. Let all employees know that blaming is for serious offenses of neglect or willful violation and not to be used as a tool for day-to-day improvement of safety performance.
  • Give supervisors alternative tools for handling safety issues that focus on prevention rather than blame. Foster cooperation between workers and supervisors to solve safety problems. Schedule regular reinforcements meetings and/or training sessions. Give supervisors regular feedback to help them monitor their progress toward the new way of handling safety issues.
  • List the steps the organization needs to take to replace blaming with prevention. Recognize and celebrate the accomplishment of these steps. Set realistic time lines for accomplishing the change.
  • Track your progress and identify obstacles. Continually ask workers and supervisors how the effort is going and what is getting in the way of progress. Review this data often and attempt to remove obstacles and add reinforcers.
  • Where you cannot remove obstacles, do damage control to lessen the negative impact on motivation. Let people know there is an obstacle and involve them in formulating strategies overcome or circumvent the obstacle.
  • Involve as many employees as possible in working toward a solution. Involvement creates buy-in and will help to solve the problem faster and give the process added support once the problem is solved.

There is a natural tendency to place blame for accidents. It is not difficult for this tendency to find its way into your behavioral safety efforts. Once there, it acts like a cancer attacking the vital employee motivation and involvement needed for success. Examine your future plans or your existing program and determine whether or not you need to take the prescribed treatment.

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