The science behind human behaviour
Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) is the process that creates a safety partnership between management and workers, focuses on people’s behaviour related to how they work, and encourages all workers to be safe and to work safely all times. Behaviour-based safety (BBS) has become increasingly popular since Frederick Taylor first pioneered scientific production management in the early 20th century. Today, his basic principles of standardized procedure and interdepartmental cooperation still steer the processes behind increased efficiency and systemized safety for many corporations.
BBS is based on the principle that unsafe work behaviours are responsible for the majority of workplace incidents and reduced productivity. By identifying, measuring, and correcting critical behaviours, management is able to produce the desired safety and production statistics. One key way that we can reverse unsafe behaviour patterns is by developing a system of positive acknowledgment and reward that motivates employees to engage in safe practices.
This process begins with the scientific study of behaviour through identification and analysis, followed by continuous observation to determine the potential causes of unsafe work. Then, by applying what we know about the science of individual and group motivation, we can predict how potential methods of intervention and incentives might change real-world behaviours.
Managers have been trying to manipulate employee motivation for decades with compensation-based safety programs, but these programs often create short-term gains and long-term losses as the system unravels due to the natural human desire to gain as much reward from as little work as possible. To accomplish behaviour modification, managers must first recognize that work is a social activity, meaning simple reward dynamics, when properly applied, can have drastic effects on the way people accomplish tasks. They respond to incentives, but in many cases, incentives are misplaced and don’t end up prioritizing the work behaviours they were created to modify.
In systems where employees are rewarded for meeting production goals, they will often cut corners and ignore safety procedure to accomplish tasks more quickly. This is because behaviour stems directly from the consequences of our action. In respect to safety, this means that if employees can expect increased rewards for meeting production goals by skipping safety procedures and experience infrequent incidents, most people will continue to cut corners. In drastic cases, workers may even avoid reporting incidents that have occurred if they believe reporting the incident will take away their reward.
So how do we remedy this misplaced motivation? Many managers may ask why they can’t just further incentivize safety goals with larger compensations. This bandage may temporarily bolster statistics, but incidents will likely soon bounce back as workers adapt to the new standard and once again find ways to further ‘optimize’ work efficiency by cutting corners, which destroys safety programs and productivity internally.
So how can management effectively engage in BBS? The simplest way to shift behaviour is to apply incentives to desired behaviours as opposed to results. This requires us to use the scientific process to dissect work habits to expose employee motivation and naturally realign incentives.
The Scientific Process
BBS starts with training staff (both management and frontline workers) to identify and observe critical safety behaviours. For example, maybe employees are ignoring a safety system already in place. Perhaps unclean workstations present a safety hazard or a lack of organization is increasing the amount of time it takes to find tools—these can be areas not necessarily bound by compliance or current work procedures.
During this step, it’s crucial that everyone is open and honest with themselves and others about the reasons procedures are ignored or why tasks may have been completed inefficiently. Once employees are able to recognize, collectively, the work habits that cause injury or incidents, they can agree on ways to prevent those behaviours from occurring. An employee may not be happy to admit that he doesn’t wear safety glasses to save time, but his attitude will quickly change if he finds out he will soon receive tangible rewards for taking the time to do something as simple as wear the proper protective equipment. As the group analyzes behaviour and production methods, standardization of work procedures can begin.
Once metrics critical to the safety process have been selected, we can begin to collect data. Data can be either qualitative (non-numerical information, such as a change in employee morale) or quantitative (numerical information, such as the number of failed safety inspections).
Regardless of the type of data collected, management and employees alike must adhere to the principles of objective observation during the collection process. The point of observation is not to single out examples of bad behaviour in individuals, but to think of greater systemic improvements and to analyze behaviour collectively. Additionally, we should be just as careful to observe and note positive safe behaviours as we are unsafe ones.
At this stage, it is critical that management emphasize positive reinforcement and involve all employees equally.
Now that metrics have been established and information collected, it’s important to establish feedback and observation loops to ensure that behaviour is maintained over time. An example of an effective technique would be peer reviews, so long as they are kept positive and discourage ‘tattling’ through anonymity. The purpose is to create employee responsibility through the reporting of successful and positive behaviour and not by pointing out flaws in others.
Another effective strategy is to structure regular meetings for employee feedback. This helps create a dialogue between middle management and frontline employees. Employees will then be more likely to report problems with procedure, such as a lack of proper equipment, instead of simply finding ways to work around them.
As these feedback and observation loops are established, managers should demonstrate genuine care and concern for the well-being of workers as well as interest in their opinions. The focus should be to maximize compliance with procedures, not achieving zero incidents or meeting safety quotas. Employees motivated to maintain safety and not achieve safety statistics will more effectively learn the procedures that will lead to goals like zero incidents.
During observations, the cause, expected consequences and rewards of behaviour should become obvious. With these observations in mind, management should set rewards and incentive programs based on encouraging safe task completion. Keep in mind that positive reinforcement is more effective than penalties or punishments. Penalizing or punishing employees for failing to meet safety guidelines should be used as a last resort.
In addition to rewards, management should set goals that are participative and that create healthy competition between employees. In the same way that people are hardwired to avoid extra work without reflective compensation, most are driven to compete with one another for rewards and advantages. Provided that incentives have been properly selected, this natural competition will drive employees to improve safety performance in steady, sustainable increments instead of finding ways to cheat the system.
Evaluation should be continuous. Continue to analyze the safety system as a whole to identify problem behaviours, whether new or persistent. Remember that this applies to both employees and management. This will help you identify which rewards and incentives are effective and which require modification.
If evaluation is not continuous, it becomes easy to revert to old habits and immediately look to end-of-process metrics like production and safety incidents. The key is to remember that it can take time for these metrics to reflect safety improvement. During this time, the effectiveness of your program should be evaluated based on employee feedback and leading metrics, such as the maintenance of safety standards.
Keep organizational focus on safety culture and improvement will take root top-down, bottom-up, and throughout. These improvements in safety will help avoid the huge direct and indirect costs of incidents, and these increased behavioural efficiencies tend to also have a positive effect on production statistics and overall worker satisfaction.