What’s that one worksite habit that really grinds your gears? Every safety pro has one pet peeve they hate to see but can’t seem to eliminate.

Bad safety habits happen on every job site, but breaking those habits isn’t as easy as slapping workers on the wrist or offering them rewards.

The truth of safety is this: worker behavior should never make or break your safety program. On the contrary, worker behavior usually reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the program. Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to fall back on some common myths that explain those behaviors away.

What are the most common misconceptions about safety habits? You’ll probably recognize at least one or two of them.


Myth 1: safety habits are the bedrock of workplace safety

It’s tempting to blame workers’ unsafe habits for incidents, missed goals, and failures in the safety program. While you can’t absolve workers of all blame, the truth is that individual habits play a far less important role in workplace safety than we realize.

When you see something dangerous and start to see red, you need to return to the hierarchy of controls. Your first tactic should always be to eliminate hazards in the first place, and then use substitution, engineering controls, or administrative controls as appropriate.

By the time you reach worker behavior at the bottom of the hierarchy, the risk should be at the absolute minimum.

In other words, if you think worker behavior is dramatically impacting site safety, then there’s a good chance you’re missing something upstream.

Rather than slapping wrists for behavioral infractions, go back and look at your safety program and the parts relating to the behavioral issue. Look at the risk assessments, JHAs, and any other reports to identify hazards and use the hierarchy of controls to limit the damage “bad habits” can do.


Myth 2: bad safety habits can be broken with incentivization

How do you help workers break bad habits? Some safety pros say that incentivization is a fast, easy way to get it done. In reality, even really good incentives won’t break bad habits.

An incentive alone doesn’t fix the core problem. To break a habit, you need to carefully define the issue and then identify the triggers (or root cause).

I’ll illustrate with an example.

Your workers only wear their safety glasses when they’re confident they’re going to get busted by the safety team or management. Most of the time, safety glasses stay in lockers, pockets, or even get strewn around the work area. You want to fix it, so what do you do?

Incentives sound good, and you’re under pressure. So, you offer workers $5 for the local sandwich shop every time you see them in their safety glasses. All of a sudden, you see safety glasses everywhere; one worker thought he was funny and showed up wearing two pairs at once.

But are they wearing them when no one can see them? And will they keep wearing their PPE when you stop handing out free sandwiches?

See, incentivization can promote positive behaviors, but it doesn’t address the underlying cause nor does it drive learning and value changes. For example, your team may not wear their safety glasses because the fit is poor or they don’t understand why they need to wear them when they assess the risk to be relatively low. In this instance, all you did was give out money. You didn’t change any behaviors or promote understanding.

Incentivization can play a role in your safety program, but it should never replace it. And when you do use incentives, make sure you deploy them evenly.


Myth 3: bad safety habits are part of the shortcut mentality

One of the best ways to alienate workers is to accuse them of taking shortcuts. Sure, it happens, but you can’t put all bad safety habits in that box. Human behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Habits are made in the environment, not the other way around.

The worker who uses poor ergonomic lifting techniques doesn’t think to themselves, “Meh, I can’t be bothered lifting this box the correct way.”

It’s vital that you work to identify the triggers of safety behaviors. Using root cause analysis can be helpful for some of the widespread behaviors you see around the site. Once you unpack the conditions behind the behavior, you can then point out the appropriate corrective action.


Myth 4: bad safety habits are a sign you hired the wrong employee

You see a new hire engaging in a lot of minor and even a few egregious behaviors, and you might be tempted to think: “Maybe this employee just doesn’t understand our culture.”

The truth is that the employee may or may not be a good fit for your company. But the safety issue often goes much deeper than whether you made the right hiring choice.

Rather than assigning blame to the new hire, go back to see if there was a disconnect along the way. You might find:

•            HR didn’t reiterate your commitment to safety during the onboarding process.

•            Your organization doesn’t overtly communicate the value of safety.

•            You run a training program that made too many assumptions about existing worker knowledge and didn’t provide enough training for the worker to hit the ground running.


Bust bad habit myths to change worker behavior

Watching workers break safety behavior rules is part of life as a safety pro. So, it’s no surprise that everyone wants to know the secret to breaking bad habits. In reality, bad safety habits are usually about something much more than behavior. So, it’s important to avoid assigning blame and calling it a day.

Instead, you need to remember that changing worker habits are far from the only thing you can do to improve safety. So if you’re seeing a rise in incidents, it’s time to return to the drawing board and see what hazards you can mitigate or eliminate altogether. You might use the hierarchy of controls, go back to your training or onboarding program, run a root cause analysis, or revamp your incentivization program.

By busting the myths around bad habits, you’ll not only help change worker behavior long-term, but you’ll start down the path from being the safety cop to being a safety leader.