Employee behavior

June 1, 2006
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Throughout history exhaustive research has been conducted regarding applied behavioral science. Much has been published regarding the “abc’s” of behavioral science — Activators (triggers or cues that lead to behavior), Behaviors (what we say and do), and Consequences (positive or negative responses that immediately follow a behavior). These three act together to create a cycle that constantly perpetuates itself; each element affects the next allowing for both change and continuity. (See “Cultural Change” diagram.).

This cycle has been studied extensively in order to affect change in “real-world” problems, such as safety performance. The challenge is to develop the best approach to realize positive change in behaviors. A behavioral-based approach can be very effective in helping lead a facility to safety excellence. This approach, of course, is effective only if integrated into the total safety program (compliance, disciplinary policies, etc.).

Although some purport that behavioral-based safety (BBS), which began its popularity in the 1980s, has run its course and is in decline, there is strong evidence that it is continually evolving and is a viable safety strategy. OSHA these days is promoting employee involvement, encouraging the development of new safety cultures and emphasizing proactive/preventive methods, in addition to their regulatory programs. The behavioral/cultural based safety approach encompasses these elements.

How to address behaviors

The key word in the approach is BEHAVIORS. Statistics continually support that between 85 percent and 95 percent of all accidents are due to unsafe behaviors/practices. Determining how best to address behaviors or practices is the key issue. Some important components of a behavioral-based approach follow.

Best practices identified. Utilizing a lead team and sub-teams, safe behaviors and conditions are identified and formulated into a checklist for all areas of a facility. The checklists are reviewed by employees working in the area before being utilized. The checklists are continually re-evaluated through the daily observations and periodic assessment for changes.

Every facility is unique. While two facilities may produce the same product they can be very different in many ways. A generic checklist is not effective. Each facility needs to analyze every area in order to capture all safe practices and conditions required. Outside consultants are the best facilitators for this activity.

Example set by management and supervision. Leadership is vital. Hourly employees mimic or conform to the standard of behavior set by management and supervision. It is important that leadership “walk the talk.” Priorities are often confused. The perception by many employees and supervisors is “production at all costs,” according to cultural surveys conducted by The Human Side, Inc.

This practice leads to a lack of trust between leadership and hourly employees. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that production and quality improve with safety. Management and supervision that embrace this and set the example in exhibiting safe behaviors and supporting same will realize significant positive changes. To affect a cultural change, the behaviors of all must change: leadership, organizational and workforce.

Hourly employees are involved and share in safety ownership. The best safety process that leads to the protection of all is one that involves front-line employees. Employees have unique knowledge of the areas they work in and are invaluable in identifying existing hazards and determining safe practices and conditions required. Their stake is high in developing a process that avoids accidents and injuries. When employees share in ownership, positive change happens.

“Almost Accidents” (near hits) reporting and solutions to prevent accidents strongly encouraged. What better way is there to prevent incidents than by looking at events that just missed being an incident? Collecting near hits, determining causes, correcting and communicating them can help reduce incidents and injury rates.

One of the key barriers to near-hit reporting is fear and embarrassment. Employees should be positively reinforced for reporting these “Almost Accidents.” Fear of reprisal must be eliminated. Anonymity may be required at first to encourage participation. In addition, if nothing is done to correct the situation or if solutions aren’t pursued, employees will stop engaging in the practice of communicating near hits.

Victories over failures. Measure and celebrate “leading” indicators rather than lagging. Historically, companies relied on measuring safety using lagging indicators — results based on lack of bad results; lack of accidents or low number of accidents. OSHA recordables, severity and fatalities — things that have already happened.

A behavioral approach involves information gathering, focusing on employee’s safe practices, correcting unsafe practices, making decisions and arriving at solutions based on data gathered and providing recognition for safety-related behavior instead of merely punishing unsafe practices. Celebrate increases in safe behaviors through daily observations, solutions determined and implemented, utilizing near-hit reporting to reduce safety risks. Process improvements are more effective than just measuring results and stats in accident occurrence.

Involvement of the total facility population. Some behavioral approaches have stopped short of involving everyone who works in a facility. There are those that involve management only. Others establish a small percentage of employees deemed “experts” to guide the process. While the involvement of management and a lead team is essential to the success of a BBS process, unless the total facility population is involved the effectiveness of the process will be diluted.

Trust, strength of feedback and participation will increase if all are given the opportunity to be involved and supply valuable input.

Observations done daily. Safe behaviors/conditions need to be measured on a daily basis, just as productivity and quality. Area checklists to be used in area observations need to follow a systematic, organized method of defining safe methods desired for individual areas and specific job activities. Once area checklists are developed, a schedule needs to be made to perform observations on a daily basis. This schedule must be consistent. Sufficient time needs to be given to observers to complete a quality observation. Quantity of observations over quality of observations is a pitfall to avoid.

Recognition for doing things right. A company that uses “proactive” tools such as near-miss reporting, total involvement in defining safe practices, daily observations with feedback and safety work order generation has numerous opportunities for rewarding and recognizing individuals as well as the total population. Traditional safety programs have focused on disciplining for unsafe acts and accidents/injuries incurred. While willful violations definitely require discipline and consequences, the most powerful tool for increasing safe behaviors is recognizing people when they act safely. Punishment appears to be easier to administer than positively reinforcing people (thanking them for doing things right). Often the attitude that “it’s their job” stymies recognition of employees. Studies show that employees will give more than acceptable performance when recognized.

Specific feedback on a continuous basis. When observations are done, verbal feedback as related to specific safe behaviors/conditions identified is given immediately to those working in the area observed. There is opportunity for employees in the area to provide input, report conditions needing to be fixed and make suggestions.

Most observation checklists are broken down into categories: PPE, housekeeping, tool and equipment use, body use, forklift operations, maintenance work, etc. By tracking results in these categories, improvements can be communicated and recognized as well as encouragement given to improve in areas that are faltering. Fixes to and/or status of unsafe conditions reported need to be communicated to the population also to foster encouragement in participation. Research findings indicate that if reinforcement/recognition is not provided, the response stops.

From reactive to proactive

Shifting from a reactive, outcome process to a proactive measurement process is not easy. Implementing a behavioral process is a significant undertaking but one well worth it when done right. If the effort is not well planned and does not take into consideration the elements and factors critical to success, the process will fail. Above all, realize and accept that all change takes time.

SIDEBAR: How to foster participation in a BBS process

  • Survey workers to determine perceptions held by the population of the plant.
  • Train all employees in BBS, and publish training schedules.
  • Solicit input from the entire workforce in identifying the best safe practices and conditions.
  • Give supervisors the training and tools required so they can satisfy the needs of both management and the primary workforce.
  • Establish and support a strong Lead Team with resources to allow them to keep the workforce aware of what is happening in the process.
  • Help prioritize things that need to be fixed, schedule and communicate timetables, including reasons for delay, etc. Recognize that not only safe practices (by all) need to be addressed but conditions as well.
  • Encourage a strong communication system between all employees in all directions.
  • Recognize/reward those who participate in the process.


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