Safety managers have a complicated job that juggles engineering, psychiatry, and life success coaching. Analysis of statistics and inspections can boggle the mind; but it is the devotion to critical analysis that can dramatically impact an organization’s productivity, safety statistics, and retention. The world’s best safety professionals “inspect what they expect at every level,” says one
safety VP.

Also, successful safety cultures should have a constant sense of unease, with a commitment to improvement from all levels of management. It is easy to become complacent and continue to rely on familiar tools — whether processes or commercial products (Hudson, 2010). The difference between the culture an organization has, versus the culture they want, can be wider than expected. Periodically, it is healthy for organizations to step away from the trees and take a ten-thousand-foot view of the forest.

Examine your most recent incident

An honest assessment can be streamlined by examining the last worksite incident’s post-event inspection.

In Pathological Organizations: Low-level workers are identified as the cause of accidents. Minimum-only safety standards are enforced.

In Reactive Organizations: Safety is defined as important to the organization; however, there remains a belief that low-level workers cause accidents. The Keep-It-Simple-Stupid approach is applied to HSE. Following an accident, there is a rush to get “more tools.”

In Calculative Organizations: There is a focus on the collection of statistics from a variety of tools. This number-crunching does not weigh how to prevent accidents or improve effectiveness.

In Proactive Organizations: HSE is important at all levels. Incidents are blamed on management failures, and performance targets and tools to simplify work processes are continually updated.

In Generative Organizations: HSE is a focal point of improvement from ALL levels. Tools are embraced by all levels.

Developing behavioral safety

As companies venture toward a generative HSE culture, there are opposing views on the effectiveness of developing behavioral safety. Detractors argue that peer-based, at-risk safety observations create adversarial relationships that can sink safety ships before they are out of port.

In case studies, the least effective trials involved plants that handled integration training without managerial support. Top-down support is vital to the success of the program. Proponents of behavioral safety tout statistics inferred from structural equation models based on a variety of self-report instruments (Cooper & Phillips, 2004). They also claim improvement in people factors categories of self-esteem, pride, enthusiasm, optimism, and innovation.

Behavior-based safety can develop an unnatural feeling of responsibility for employees to actively care about the safety of their peers. It also gives an opportunity for organizations to establish statistics that are a rarity in the industry – “We noticed you doing a good job.” To keep behavioral safety on track, positive reinforcement is a cornerstone to the success of the program.

Behavior-based safety coaching tips:

1. Explain the why behind the how. It motivates.

2. Empower people of all levels to get involved in designing, implementing, evaluating, and refining HSE processes. It encourages self-accountability.

3. Give them choices. It benefits commitment and performance.

4. Incorporate Management Support. No management involvement can make participation less intimidating, but management support empowers.

5. Pop quiz. Scheduled observations produce unrealistic, invalid data. A great example was a company that distributed hard hat stickers that indicated the worker’s willingness to be observed at any time. The stickers caught on.

6. Stay active. Evaluate and refine this process constantly. Explore add-on tools that can help — support can come from many places.

 (Geller, 2004).

Missteps to avoid:

1. Do not punish participants. Negative consequences can stifle participation and honest reporting for fear of retribution or creating adversarial relationships. Employee buy-in can take time. In peer-based observation, reiterate that the peer is not responsible for corrective action. They simply complete the critical behavior checklist, which catalogs positive behavior alongside at-risk behaviors.

2. Negative reinforcement is easier for us to do, but can lead to hiding incidents for fear of losing a bonus.

3. No reinforcement. If a suggestion for improvement is made, have systems in place to document it, credit the contributor(s) on the accepted safety suggestion, and implement the change.

4. Quick-fix mentality. Focus beyond number crunching; the process of observation and feedback is more valuable to creating a safety culture. Graduated implementation works best.

Incentive programs

New incentive programs reward those who exceed their past participation levels, initiate the development of safety practices, and conduct self-driven, management-approved, training sessions. New perspectives on training documentation can mature a safety culture.

When workers develop a more comprehensive understanding of their roles and responsibilities, behavior-based safety encourages them to accept these roles willingly. There is less need for required surveys and an increase in peer involvement and reinforcement. Also, in higher culture levels, technical compliance is balanced with human factors design analysis (Hudson, 2010).

A lack of employee buy-in can sink a plan very rapidly. Support from sources outside the box can help reinforce new safety culture aspirations. Resources include safety blogs, safety posters,
safety contests with PPE prizes, and social media opportunities.

Developing an organization-wide culture of safety does not happen by chance. It happens by choice. Safety programs that are adaptive to changes in their safety culture on all levels not only improve worker safety, but also boost morale, productivity, and performance.


Hudson, P. (2010, March). A guide to selecting appropriate tools to improve HSE culture. The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, (435).

Cooper, M.D., & Phillips, R. A. (2014). Exploratory analysis of the safety climate and safety behavior relationship, Journal of Safety Research, 35, Pages 497-512.

Geller, E. S., Perdue, S. R., & French, A. (2004, July ). Behavior-based safety coaching: 10 guidelines for successful application. Professional Safety,  42-49.