Behavior is not right or wrong, good or bad. It just is. It is neutral. Approach behaviors with the dispassionate, objective view of a scientist. Not with emotions.

Chemists consider their basic elements as neutral. They only describe the elements on their basic observable traits, and understand them best when they interact in certain controlled situations. Elements themselves are neutral, they just are.  A chemist doesn’t think of Hydrogen as good, bad, right or wrong.  For them, Hydrogen has 1 proton and no neutrons, has a standard atomic weight of 1.008, and is the most abundant element in the Universe.

When elements interact they have predictable outcomes. Outcomes of these interactions are not neutral. When two Hydrogen atoms combine with a Carbon atom you have a Hydrocarbon, a molecule that naturally occurs here on earth -- and things get more interesting.

Dispassionate and objective analyses of the interaction between Hydrogen and Carbon has led to amazing applications in our modern age.

Hydrocarbons in different petroleum configurations save lives, help machines fly, power industrial plants that make these medicines and flying machines along with lubricants, propellants, explosives, plastics… the list goes on. Put in context, the neutral hydrocarbon can be very good and right for many applications.

But this same neutral Hydrocarbon can kill and destroy given another context. Recent disasters involving Hydrocarbons include refinery explosions at the BP Texas City refinery, along with smaller refineries in Valero, Veolia, and Tesoro. Hydrocarbon spills in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and the Niger Delta kill and disrupt communities of fauna (including humans) and flora.  Society is now debating the role of Hydrocarbons in climate change. Put in context, the neutral hydrocarbon can be very bad and perhaps at times wrong for our world.

Neutral elements with positive or negative outcomes because of the context they are put into.

The importance of context

The whole time I’ve been writing this article I haven’t put on a hard hat!

Was I “wrong” to have forsaken a hard hat while writing? Would I have been “right” to do so? No. In this context a hard hat would not make me safer. This is because behavior is neutral, not right or wrong. Donning a hard hat is not “right,” it is an action that must be defined by the situation you’re in. Context.

This makes all the difference. The situation determines the outcome of behavior. It’s the situation that defines behavior as “safe” or “at-risk.”

I’ll prove my point further. This morning I bent at the waist… all the way to the floor! Was that “wrong”? You can easily think of a situation where bending at the waist will put me at-risk for injury -- perhaps if I was picking up a 40-pound load and twisting to put it on a truck bed. In this case it would be the situation that caused my behavior to put me at-risk. The behavior itself, bending at the waist, is neutral.

This morning I was doing yoga (because I’m getting old and my body hurts if I don’t). I look pretty awkward as the yoga teacher told me to do a “forward fold,” better known as “bending at the waist.” I did the behavior this morning in the context of my morning yoga class.  Bending at the waist probably made me safer today because it loosened my back.

Same behavior, different risks

We could go on and on. Did you reach out and grab your coffee by the handle this morning. Is that wrong? Is there a situation where you can reach out the same way and stick your fingers in some active equipment where they can get crushed? Same behavior, different situations. It is the situation that defines the behavior as “safe” or “at-risk.”

Your processes, your equipment and facilities, your policies, your supervision, your programs, your training, your meetings -- all of these are the very “situations” we are talking about that interact with behavior to produce good or bad outcomes. 

You have the power

Here is the sobering yet empowering question: who controls the situation your workers are put into, the ones that lead to at-risk or safe behaviors? You do. You can’t change a person, but it is empowering to know that you can change behaviors because you have control of the context they are put!  

This point is a critical change of mindset central to safety culture change.

When you consider a behavior as neutral, without judging it right or wrong, we need to understand how the situation affected the worker; how it put him or her in the position to take a risk. Through this we learn to design situations for workers that put them in the best position to engage in safe behaviors.

Don’t blame — analyze

This is a distinctly different way to understanding behavior. Don’t assign a label (“stupid,” “lazy”), blame the worker, get mad, or engage in other dysfunctional practices that kill your safety culture. Instead, observe behavior as a neutral source of information that can lead you to an analysis that provides solutions to change these behaviors for the better. 

When you go out to your site and see a worker behave in a way that puts them at risk, back off the urge to get passionate and lash out at the worker. Instead, step back and go “huh,” that’s interesting. Why is that behavior occurring right now?

Approach any incident with a clear understanding of the cause and effect relationships between the behaviors related to the risk, and the reasons why that person, either knowingly (on purpose) or unknowingly found themselves in a position to take that risk. (Feel free to read this sentence as much as you need so it sinks in real deep.)