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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Pardon the inconvenience

April 30, 2003
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My ISHN article last month discussed how to estimate the relative risks of behaviors considered for inclusion on a critical behavior checklist (CBC). Three dimensions of behavioral risk - exposure, severity, and probability - were described as the "ESP" characteristics of at-risk behavior that should guide your process of selecting behaviors for a CBC. This month's article introduces the role of behavioral inconvenience in determining the design and use of a CBC.

Shaping the outcome

First, let's consider how behavioral inconvenience affects the "percent-safe scores" obtained from a CBC. After a number of CBCs are completed, it's possible to calculate a percent-safe score for each target behavior by adding up all the safe observations for a particular behavior and dividing this sum by the total number of observations for this behavior. Multiplying this number by 100 yields a percentage or a "percent-safe score" for a certain behavior.

Behavioral inconvenience likely influences every percent-safe score. The more inconvenient the safe behaviors on a CBC, the lower the percent-safe score, unless an intervention has been implemented to improve one or more inconvenient behaviors.

It's certainly logical to think of behavioral inconvenience as varying along a continuous scale from "very easy" to do to "very difficult or impossible" to do. I recommend you ask people to assign a certain behavior a behavioral inconvenience index from 1 to 10, with 1 reflecting "most easy" and 10 representing "most difficult."

Comparing the inconvenience scores of safe versus at-risk behaviors can clarify why safety is often a fight with human nature. In almost every case, inconvenience scores will be higher for safe than at-risk behaviors. And the greater the gap between a safe behavior and its at-risk counterpart, the more difficult it will be to get people to perform the safe alternative. This gap often signifies one or more environmental factors hindering safe behavior.

This process of giving behaviors an inconvenience score naturally prompts discussion about various environmental barriers to certain safe work practices, some of which can be removed or made less significant. Sometimes these discussions identify safe behaviors that are so inconvenient or difficult to perform under existing circumstances that a revision of the safe operating procedures is called for. This could require some re-engineering to make safe behavior possible.

Inconvenience evaluations

Ideally, the initial applications of a CBC include a majority of relatively convenient behaviors. This enables perceptions of success from the start. But behavioral risk (as discussed last month) should be given more weight when selecting CBC behaviors than behavioral inconvenience. Thus, it's likely an initial CBC will include many safe behaviors that are inconvenient. In this case, the inconvenience index can provide an explanation for a less-than-desirable percent-safe score.

Inconvenience evaluations also provide direction for the number of behaviors to include on a CBC. The CBC should not be overwhelming, especially when beginning an observation and feedback process. It's not a good idea to include an abundance of inconvenient behaviors. Having more convenient than inconvenient safe behaviors on a CBC does not limit its power. In fact, the more convenient safe behaviors often reduce the most risk of personal injury.

Lessons from the road

I'm sure you know the most convenient behavior a vehicle occupant can perform to reduce the severity of injury in a crash. In fact, the very convenient behavior of buckling-up probably has more large-scale potential to save lives than any other safety-related behavior. Reducing vehicle speed and using turn signals appropriately are two other convenient behaviors that can prevent a vehicle crash.

Turn-signal use would probably get a higher inconvenience score than reducing right-foot pressure on the gas pedal. But the natural rewarding consequences of speeding, including arriving sooner at one's destination, makes speeding a more difficult behavior to change than nonuse of turn signals.

Assessing and adjusting the air pressure in the tires of your vehicle are good safety measures, but these behaviors are more inconvenient than using a safety belt, traveling at the speed limit, and signaling lane changes and intersection turns. How about buckling-up a young child in a child safety seat? Actually, it's quite inconvenient to do this correctly, which is one reason most children do not receive maximum protection in their vehicle safety seats.

The other reason for at-risk use of child safety seats is insufficient knowledge regarding their safe installation and use. Developing and refining a CBC is likely the best way to teach a group the safe steps of a particular task, from behaviors that maximize safe travel to those that help to achieve and maintain an injury-free workplace.

What about your workplace?

So what safety-related behaviors at your workplace would get a high inconvenience score? Are any recommended safe-work practices actually impossible to perform under existing circumstances? What environmental barriers make these behaviors inconvenient? How can these barriers be eliminated, or at least made less influential? These are critical questions for a work team to address. Asking a work team to assign inconvenience scores to their safe-operating procedures activates this kind of discussion.

SIDEBAR: Let's talk. . .

Identifying safe behaviors that are extremely inconvenient to perform can activate critical dialogue about environmental barriers that need to be removed. Sometimes engineering constraints make it unreasonable to expect a person to follow a particular safe operating procedure. Assigning inconvenience scores can reveal these difficulties and incite constructive conversation about various re-engineering strategies.

Developing and applying a critical behavior checklist helps to make participants at a workplace more safety-alert and safety-competent. It helps groups reach consensus and ownership regarding expected safe operating procedures, and increases interpersonal accountability to meet or exceed the safety-related standards of a work culture.

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