Psychology

Test Your Knowledge of Safety

April 21, 2000
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Many presentations on the psychology of safety base assertions solely on common sense. Statements are made that sound good but are actually incorrect or unfounded. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to determine which psychology-related statements are valid. Since 1992, my regular contributions to Industrial Safety &Hygiene News have been based on scientific investigation rather than speculation or hearsay. I continue to stress that the psychology of safety is not a matter of common sense, but the result of rigorous behavioral research.

Some invalid statements are given so often by motivational speakers or pop psychologists they are accepted as fact. In this article, I want to examine seven of these fallacies. "Reprimand privately, recognize publicly." Sound familiar? Actually, whether you're correcting behavior or giving recognition, it's always better to communicate one-to-one in private. Never recognize a person in front of a group without that person's permission. Some people are embarrassed by public commendation; others fear verbal harassment from peers. They imagine someone saying, "Why did you deserve that 'safe-employee-of-the-month' award? I've done as much around here for safety as you have. Have you been kissing up to the boss?"

"We learn from mistakes more than successes." Think about what's being said here. What do you learn when you make a mistake? You learn what not to do. That's something worth learning, but consider how much more you learn when you do something correctly and receive feedback that you're correct. You learn what you need to continue in order to be successful." 77% of our mental thoughts are negative."

We do need to be recognized more for our safe behavior, primarily because we learn more from correct than incorrect performance. But to claim a certain proportion of negative thoughts pervade the minds of human beings is absurd. Ask yourself the question, "How could they know?" This is a ridiculous statement. "Do something 21 times and it becomes a habit." Behavior needs to be repeated many times to develop fluency and then a habit. That's why it's important to support the safe work practices of our friends and teammates. But to presume there's a set number of repetitions needed for habit formation is downright silly, and frankly, insults the intelligence of most listeners.

For years I've wondered where the '21' came from. Then a local farmer reminded me it takes 21 days for an egg to hatch into a chicken.

Some behaviors are so complex or inconvenient they never become habitual. Consider the chain of behaviors needed to lock out a power source, complete a behavioral audit, or follow a stretch and exercise routine. These important safety-related behaviors are never likely to become automatic. Their occurrence will probably always require some deliberate motivating influence, whether external or self-imposed.

"We can only motivate ourselves, not others." If this were true, we couldn't motivate others to choose the safe way of doing something when the at-risk alternative is more comfortable, efficient, convenient or perhaps habitual. In my September 1998 ISHN article, I discussed the role of external motivational intervention to increase safe behavior and decrease at-risk behavior. Here I only want to discredit the myth that only self-motivation works.

"Incentives and rewards are detrimental to self-motivation." Yes, you can insult one's intelligence or self-motivation by using the wrong type of intervention to improve a particular behavior, as I discussed in my ISHN contribution last September. And this can have a temporary detrimental effect on individual performance.

But research indicates this negative impact is relatively infrequent, and if it does occur it is short-lived. Incentives and rewards are far more likely to benefit desired performance and even self-motivation for long-term behavior change if they are used correctly. The key is to use a behavior-based approach to incentive/reward programs, as I detailed in an earlier ISHN article (November 1992).

"For every 300 unsafe acts there are 29 minor injuries and one major injury." I couldn't end this brief list of unfounded claims without adding the most popular myth in the field of industrial safety. This ratio between at-risk behavior and injury was first proposed in the 1930s by H. W. Heinrich. It has been repeated so often, some safety pros refer to it as 'Heinrich's Law.' It started as a mere estimate, and after years of use in safety speeches and publications, without any empirical verification, its status was elevated to 'basic principle' or 'natural law.'

This statement does show the connection between behavior and injury, and implies that a proactive approach to injury prevention requires attention to behaviors and near misses. However, the number of at-risk behaviors per injury is much larger than 300, as verified empirically by Frank Bird in 1966, who also found property damage to be a reliable predictor or leading indicator of personal injury. My point here is not about a proactive versus reactive approach to safety. More important, think about how the long-term repetition of an unfounded proclamation that sounds good can become a common myth with presumed validity. Too often in safety we accept what 'sounds good,' without asking for the research evidence. This is particularly true if the claims are packaged with slick marketing.

Don't take statements at face value. Ask for objective scientific research to support the claims.

By E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., senior partner, Safety Performance Solutions, and professor of psychology, Virginia Tech. Contact SPS at (540) 951-7233 for information on its research-based educational materials and consulting services.

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