We all do it at some time. We take a short cut, we take a risk or we do something that we know we shouldn’t be doing. People very often behave in an unsafe manner because they have done so in the past and got away with it. When this question is asked at work, the answer is often “I’ve always done it that way”. Although this may be true, the potential for an accident is never far away. The familiar accident/incident triangle models such as the Heinrich Triangle suggests that for every 330 unsafe acts, 29 will result in a minor incident and 1 in a major accident or incident.

Over an extended period of time, the absence of an injury or adverse effect is actually reinforcing the unsafe behaviour that will, in all probability, lead to a major accident, incident or injury. In other words, the consequences of behaving unsafely will almost always determine future unsafe behaviour, simply because reinforced behaviour nearly always tends to be repeated.

This is particularly true if the reinforcing effect of the behaviour is soon, certain and positive. This can be illustrated by addictive behaviour such as smoking. For the smoker the reinforcing effect is soon (immediate), certain (every time) and positive (satisfies the craving). The negative consequences of the behaviour, such as smoking-related ill-health are perceived as some years away (late) and uncertain. At work, people will find it difficult to follow procedures if they are consistently rewarded by, for example, saving time that achieves extra production by behaving unsafely. It ticks all three of the reinforcing boxes.

This type of unsafe behaviour can very quickly become the norm. It is often further exacerbated by line managers turning a blind eye to the behaviour, or in some cases even encouraging it for the sake of production. Of course, this seriously undermines the company’s efforts for continuous safety improvement, as it leads to the employee perception that safety can be compromised for the sake of production.

It is not until an accident happens that the issue is addressed. And even then, the investigation very often only goes as far as identifying the unsafe behaviour – usually, finding someone to blame. The root cause of the unsafe behaviour, and hence the accident (which is very often an organisational deficiency), is never determined and therefore not addressed, leading to the possibility of the same chain of events in the future.

By addressing the unsafe behaviour as soon as it is observed, determining the reason for the behaviour and addressing the organisational deficiency that is the root cause of the behaviour, unsafe behaviour can be eliminated. Keep on doing this for every unsafe behaviour observed, and very soon we may see a culture developing where safe behaviour becomes the “I’ve always done it that way”.

Ellis Whittam has a number of Consultants experienced in helping organisations develop behaviour safety programmes. To find out more about how we can help your organisation, please contact us.

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