The Human Side of Safety
Broaden your perspective of injury analysis & prevention
You can’t deny the critical role of human dynamics when analyzing contributing factors to a workplace injury, or when developing interventions to prevent injuries and improve occupational safety and health. But it seems safety pros limit the human-side of safety to “culture/climate change,” “mindset modification,” “attitude adjustment,” “increased enforcement,” “self-accountability,” or “behavior-based observation and feedback”.
Taken alone, each of these interventions is limited and insufficient. So which should be included to improve the safety culture or climate?
A narrow perspective regarding the psychology of injury analysis and prevention is understandable. Safety trainers and consultants market select tools or intervention approaches – often with less-than-extensive education and experience in psychological science. Indeed, many of these approaches are actually essential to cultivating a safety-engaged workforce, but many implicate a rather narrow view of the human side of safety. Here are seven dimensions of people – using the BASIC ID acronym -- with each dynamic reflecting intervention potential for occupational safety and health.
The BASIC ID Acronym
After teaching my introductory-psychology students the various approaches to psychotherapy, from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis to B.F. Skinner’s behavior analysis and Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy, I introduce BASIC ID–an acronym that reflects the complexity of humans. Few clinical-science approaches to therapy or counseling address each of these human dynamics.
The same is true for handling the human side of safety. Safety pros are not equipped to delve deeply into analysis and treatment of psychological issues, but these seven dimensions of human nature might influence a more comprehensive approach to cultivating an actively caring for people (AC4P) culture.
“B” for Behavior
Obviously, workers’ on-the-job behavior influences the probability of an injury, and workers’ AC4P behavior enhances the success of any injury-prevention process. Behavior-based safety (BBS) –including a peer-to-peer observation-and-feedback process – successfully reduces workplace injuries by engaging employees in interpersonal, behavior-focused coaching.
"A" for Attitude
Personal experience reveals that behavior change won’t last unless the performers connect a positive attitude with the behavior, the intervention process, and those who apply and/or monitor the process. Note that “attitude” is much more than an opinion. Consider the ABC’s of attitude – “A” for Affect or emotion, “B” for Behavior, and “C” for Cognition or thinking. A person’s attitude has an emotional component and influences what s/he does and the concomitant self-talk.
“S” for Sensation
Look at the shoe depicted below. What colors do you see? When I show this illustration to my students, most see a gray shoe with green/teal laces, but many others see a pink shoe with white laces. Some see the shoe colors switch back and forth.
This illustration prompts awareness that people can sense the same environment differently. This distinction is only about “sensation.” What about “perception” or how individuals interpret what they see, hear, feel, touch, and smell? It’s wrong to assume that a particular worker sees and interprets a potential safety hazard as you do.
“I” for Imagery
A number of psychotherapists include “imagery” as a component of their treatment. For example, a client might be asked to a) imagine a serene and calming scenario to elicit a state of relaxation; or b) visualize a certain anxiety-inducing situation to facilitate extinction of a conditioned emotional response (e.g., a phobia).
Consider how picturing a serious injury to oneself or another person could motivate the occurrence of safe injury-preventive behavior. Yes, this is a fear-provoking, failure-avoidance intervention. But fear is a motivating emotion that works to keep people safe if they have self-efficacy–they know what to do to avoid the fear-eliciting image.
“C” for Cognition
Cognition implies thinking or self-talk. Safety-related action from imagining a devastating injury results when cognition is associated with the image. “To prevent my image of a worker falling from that roof, I must promote the use of appropriate fall protection.”
Cognitive therapists attack the irrational or negative thinking of their clients with the purpose of “thinking people into relevant behavior change.” From the same framework, safety pros attempt to a) eliminate thinking that can incite at-risk behavior; and b) enhance safety-related cognitions that can activate injury-preventive behavior and/or the occurrence of interpersonal AC4P behavior on behalf of another person’s safety.
“I” for Interpersonal”
It’s obvious an AC4P safety culture requires ongoing interpersonal pro-social support for safety –from identifying and removing injury-related hazards to interpersonal AC4P mentoring, coaching, and inspiration for injury prevention. Researchers have demonstrated convincingly that interpersonal support enhances personal health, happiness, and life satisfaction.
“D” for Drugs
When I ask my students to guess the human dimension reflected by the letter “D,” someone inevitably yells out “drugs,” presumably as a joke. My reply – “Absolutely right, but I’m not talking about those illegal drugs you sniff or inject. How about those over-the-counter drugs – alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or prescription drugs for pain – that influence each of the prior human dynamics we’ve reviewed?”
Pay attention to the physical and psychological impact of these common drugs. Of course, this is not enlightening information for most safety pros, given many have dealt with drug issues among employees.
After 55 years of researching and teaching psychological science, I recommend the following. Start with behavior by implementing a BBS observation-and-feedback coaching process, but recognize the need to solicit and sustain employee engagement through their supportive attitudes, perceptions, cognitions, and interpersonal AC4P behavior. Your mission: “Act people into beneficial safety-related attitudes, perceptions, cognitions, images, and interpersonal support.”