When employee behavior is acknowledged as a key factor in accidents, is management absolved of its safety responsibility? Nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather than diminishing management responsibility, a safety initiative that focuses on employee behavior derives its power from management awareness and intervention.

But to fully realize this power, managers must avoid several traps when it comes to their involvement in safety. This article discusses those pitfalls, and how to step around them.

Many times companies think they are focusing their safety efforts on employee behavior and don't understand why they are not meeting desired safety goals. There are two basic reasons: First, managers have tried to frighten employees into safe behavior; and, second, they offer rewards for a lack of accidents. Neither approach increases safe work behavior, and both, in fact, violate everything we know about human behavior and how to influence it.

Let's look at some typical managerial styles: ·

  • Trying to influence behavior to improve safety, managers often stop employees when they are in a dangerous situation or performing an unsafe action.

    Although they must continue to do this, managers also need to observe and reinforce safe behaviors when they occur. Call this expanded focus. Don't just react to unsafe behavior -observe and acknowledge safe behavior. This is at the heart of a successful behavioral safety program. ·

  • Instilling fear is basically unproductive when it comes to encouraging safety.

    The widespread use of admonitions such as "Wear your safety shields or you'll lose an eye," or "Lock-out that equipment before starting your repairs or you'll lose a hand," have little or no impact on behavior. Why? During the actual work day employees rarely lose eyes or hands. So there is a tremendous reality gap between warnings and daily experience. Fear only works when the incident rate is so extraordinarily high that the danger is readily apparent to all. ·

  • Rewarding employees for no accidents is a passive, wait-and-see approach. This requires managers to do nothing. In fact, they actually make themselves victims of chance. And they give up all control in safety matters. For instance, in a safety campaign where everyone is given $100 if no accidents occur during a designated period, the minute an accident happens the campaign is over and the focus on safety diminishes for the rest of the campaign time frame. Any influence the manager had is over. ·
  • Interaction with employees is often too limited.

Managers can't influence employee behavior if contact is too infrequent, if desired behavior is not reinforced as it occurs, and if instruction is not specific enough. Although managers may specify what behavior should be stopped, they often do not pinpoint what behavior should be occurring.

We recommend that managers observe workers three to four times a day, two to three minutes at a time, working off a checklist of safe behaviors. These spot checks form the basis for establishing safe behavior measurement and feedback. During observations, managers and supervisors should check every time they see one of the target safe behaviors being used. It's very important that employees are aware that their safe behavior is being observed and recorded.

Charts and graphs help

Reinforcement should be done frequently, immediately (as the desired behavior is occurring), and it should be given only when the desired behavior occurs. It can be as simple as waving and saying, "Good stop," when a forklift driver stops completely at an intersection. It's important to be very specific about the safe behavior you observed and would like to see again.

In the workplace, the majority of behavior is safe behavior. So an approach that focuses on what is being done correctly increases a manager's opportunity to be proactive, and it accelerates his ability to influence employee behavior. By reinforcing safe actions a manager has many chances to interact with employees in a positive way throughout the day.