Two years ago, I co-authored an article with Margaret Hanson in SHP magazine about behavior change in a health and safety context (Just one more thing, SHP, July 2013). In the article, we discussed one model in particular – the COM-B (1) – which we liked for its elegance and simplicity and which we valued for the research base from which it is drawn. The model is the central core of the Behavior Change Wheel (BCW) (1) which will be discussed later in this run of articles.

The COM-B posits that three things are required for a behavior to take place: the capability (physical and/or psychological); the motivation (both reflective and automatic); and the opportunity (which might be physical and/or social).

In the intervening two years, we have used this model to support health and safety interventions in a variety of contexts. Most importantly, we have used it to help drive a radical rethink in the behavioral safety programs of the organizations with which we work. This article outlines some of the thinking and experiences we have had over the past two years.

What’s wrong with behavioral safety?

Behavioral safety has wrongly been billed as the silver bullet to cure all ills. At their worst, behavioral safety interventions can:

Treat people like commodities or like animals. In some behavioral programs organizations try to manipulate workers into behaving in certain ways and then blame them for getting it wrong; neglecting to consider the system or organizational failures that supported those behaviors.

Be un-targeted – not clearly defining what the goals are for the intervention, based on a sound assessment of the specific issues.

Ignore evidence – failing to draw on decades of psychology research in the health arena to support initiatives.

Fail to give feedback – so that, rather than take a step-by-step approach, with learning for all, en route, the initiative is a one off, often “tick-box” exercise.

These issues, along with others concerning “safe behavior programs,” have been discussed at length over the last decade (2). It’s tempting to avoid the whole field of behavioral safety altogether, so as not to fall into the considerable number of traps we find there. However, understanding what drives workplace behaviors, and how this relates to safe performance, should be a pivotal part of health and safety practice across the globe.

Getting the right focus on behavior

It goes without saying that attending to the basics in the workplace should be the groundwork that precedes any attention to behaviors. By this we mean there should be well maintained and “fit for purpose” workplace and equipment, with systems and procedures that work for the people who have to use them. Already, attending to these things drives workplace behaviors because (using the language of the COM-B) they impact on a worker’s physical opportunity to perform. Keeping on top of the basics also shows that these issues matter in the organization, which is part of the social context or social opportunity, as the COM-B model would bill it.

Furthermore, the worker participation that helps assure the constant optimization of the workplace, equipment and systems also feeds into both opportunity and motivational drivers of behavior. Indeed we recognize all of these as aspects as important for safety climate – the “frame of reference” through which people understand what is expected, supported and rewarded in an organization (3, 4). In other words, just “doing the groundwork” drives safety performance.


1. Michie, S et al (2011): “The behavior change wheel: A new method for characterizing and designing behavior change interventions”, in Implementation Science 2011, 6:42 – 1/42

2. Hopkins, A 2006, “What are we to make of safe behavior programs?”, Safety Science, vol. 44, pp. 583-597.

3. Zohar, D. 2010. “Thirty Years of Safety Climate Research: Reflections and Future Directions.” Accident Analysis & Prevention 42 (5): 1517–1522. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2009.12.019.

4. Clarke, S. 2006. “The Relationship between Safety Climate and Safety Performance: A Meta- Analytic Review.” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 11 (4): 315–327. doi:10.1037/ 1076-8998.11.4.315.

Source: Safety & Health Practitioner (United Kingdom)