Most readers are familiar with the common phrase, “The errors of our ways.“ So why am I talking about the intention of our ways -- not errors – in this article?

Some of you perceive an immediate association with “errors” due to the common notion that most injuries are caused by human error. Indeed, a key mission of the increasingly popular HOP (human organizational performance) approach to injury prevention is to alter the work environment in order to make errors less likely to occur.

But what is the benefit of talking about “our intentions”? A practical answer requires us to consider a most important tool for discovering ways to make a work environment more error- and injury-free —behavior-based safety (BBS).

The Critical Behavior Checklist (CBC)

Many if not most readers are familiar with the critical behavior checklist (CBC) used for BBS observations, and they know how it’s applied to evaluate the relative occurrence of safe vs. at-risk behavior at a worksite. They realize the CBC is not developed and handed down by supervisors or safety professionals, but it is derived and applied by on-the-job work teams. Plus, most readers understand the need and the rationale to continuously modify or update the CBC when jobs change and when certain behaviors are observed to reach a consistently high percentage of safe occurrences.

Developing a CBC 

Representatives of a large work team or everyone on a small work team define the safe behaviors they need to perform consistently in order to keep each other injury-free. They also define unsafe or at-risk behaviors that could result in a personal injury. Coworkers use this CBC to observe and record occurrences of safe and at-risk behavior during brief peer-to-peer observation sessions. The observer also records environmental and situational factors that could be influencing occurrences of the safe and at-risk behaviors observed.

After completing a CBC, the observer conducts a brief behavioral feedback session with the worker observed to review the CBC results—the frequency of safe and at-risk behavior. This critical interpersonal feedback component of the typical BBS observation-and-feedback session is often overlooked or done incompletely. Rather, the behavioral frequencies are entered in a computer program to calculate the safe-occurrence percentages per behavior and often compared across work areas or facilities. 

Peer-to-peer discussions of the CBC results are often unpopular because these conversations take time and can feel awkward, especially if one or more at-risk behaviors had been observed. How do you tell a coworker s/he had been working unsafely and increasing the probability of a serious injury?

The non-directive approach to giving corrective feedback is necessary. But I want you to consider the utility of discussing “intentions” as a way to increase occurrences of informative interpersonal BBS feedback sessions.

The intention factor

How valid or accurate are the CBC results from a peer-to-peer BBS observation? Presumably the worker knows s/he is being observed and most likely attempts to be as safe as possible. The worker is intentionally practicing the safe operating procedure (SOP), as s/he understands it.

Do the CBC data reflect the “true” percentages of safe behavior? Probably not, but what if the stated purpose of the BBS conversations about CBC results were changed to a focus on intention rather than behavior? Everyone is prone to perform unsafe behavior at times, and therefore the BBS conversations are conducted to understand the intentions behind observed work behavior.  

Consider the value of discussing a person’s intentions for performing safe vs. at-risk behavior. Of course, the intention or rationale for working safely is obvious—to prevent an injury. But verbalizing this intention could actually increase the frequency of safe behavior, especially among lone workers—when no one’s watching. Such overt verbal behavior could influence relevant covert verbal behavior or self-talk, perhaps shifting habitual behavior (unconscious competence) to mindful fluency (conscious competence). 

The advantage of focusing on intention is greatest with regard to conversations about at-risk behavior. Why? Because an open discussion of such intentions could reveal HOP factors (e.g., management and peer influence, environmental context, and reward/penalty contingencies), as well as dispositional determinants (e.g., attitude, cognition, or fatigue) that influenced the observation of an at-risk behavior. Some of these factors revealed in a feedback conversation could be subsequently modified to decrease the probability of an error or an injury.

It’s also likely the quantity and quality of an interpersonal conversation about the CBC results will increase if the focus is not on “observing and recording occurrences of safe and at-risk behavior,” but on “increasing safety-related mindfulness and discovering factors that might influence some workers to perform at-risk behavior.”

The CBC is to be completed and recorded as usual, but openly accomplished to reveal situational and dispositional determinants of safe and at-risk behavior by discussing “intentions.” Question: With this mindset or expectancy, will the acceptance, applicability and accuracy of the CBC results increase? I think so.

To conclude

Shifting the focus of peer-to-peer BBS feedback conversations from behavior to intention implies more subjectivity than objectivity. It reduces the perception of behavioral accountability between the observer and the worker observed. Such a shift in purpose and mindset can actually increase acceptance and participation in observation-and-feedback sessions. 

CBC behavioral data are still collected for analysis, but they might actually be more valid. More importantly, the crucial interpersonal feedback discussion following a BBS observation will likely occur more often. This conversation will help understand observed occurrences of at-risk behavior and modifying system factors necessary to decrease incidents of human error and workplace injury.