Sometimes I think we forget that behavior-based safety emanated from applied behavior analysis. This month I'd like to offer basic guidelines for evaluating the human behavior aspects of a safety problem. Diagnosing (and supporting) behavior should be given equal weight to changing it.

Analyzing the roots of behavior is important because two remedies typically used to change behavior - training and discipline - often overlook critical behavioral influences. Training presumes employees would do the right thing if only they knew how. Discipline presumes that employees know what to do, but won't follow through.

It's not as simple as "not knowing" or "not caring." Evaluate the gap between "ideal" and "real" behavior, and you'll usually come up with a different action plan to correct the problem. The guidelines I'm using here are adapted from the performance analysis flow diagram presented by Robert F. Mayer and Peter Pipe in their book, Analyzing Performance Problems (Third Edition, 1997, Atlanta, GA: The Center for Effective Performance, Inc.).

From their more than 60 combined years of analyzing and solving human performance problems, Mayer and Pipe conclude that many discrepancies between real and ideal behavior can be eliminated with relatively little effort. Behavior might be more at-risk than desired because expectations are unclear, resources are inadequate or feedback is unavailable for continuous improvement.

Solutions are obvious and relatively inexpensive in these cases. Behavior-based instruction or demonstration can overcome invisible expectations. Behavior-based feedback can enable continuous improvement. And a work team can decide what resources are needed to make safe behavior more convenient, comfortable or efficient.

Here are three questions to ask when analyzing behavioral discrepancies in your workplace:

Is safe behavior punished?

Behavior is motivated by its consequences - this is a key principle of behavior-based safety. Try to see consequences through the eyes of your employees. For example, you might consider an individual's public safety award as a favorable consequence, but it could be unfavorable to him or her because of expected harassment from coworkers.

In some work cultures, the consequences for "doing the right thing" - reporting an environmental hazard or "near miss," wearing protective gear or using an equipment guard - are more negative than positive. An employee might be accused of pointing fingers, for instance, when reporting hazards or near-misses. It's not unusual for people to be ridiculed for wearing protective gear ("only a 'chicken' would wear that fall protection") or using an equipment guard. It might even be considered "cool" to work unprotected and take risky short cuts.

Mayer and Pipe suggest that whenever a discrepancy exists between desired and demonstrated behavior, part of the problem is due to desired behavior being punished.

Is at-risk behavior rewarded?

Natural consequences often favor risk-taking. For instance, calculated risks are usually taken to save time. I've analyzed several work environments where by-passing power lockout switches was acceptable. The worker who could fix or adjust equipment without locking out the power was a hero because he could handle equipment problems without slowing down production.

Behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Most people perform the way they do because they expect to achieve soon, certain, and positive consequences. Or they expect to avoid soon, certain, and negative consequences. People take calculated risks because they expect to gain something favorable and/or avoid something unfavorable.

Are extra consequences used effectively?

Since the natural consequences of comfort, convenience or efficiency usually prompt workers to choose at-risk over safe behavior, it's often necessary to use incentive/reward or disincentive/penalty programs to motivate safe behavior. Unfortunately, most of these programs do more harm than good because they are implemented ineffectively.

Disincentives are often ineffective because they're used inconsistently and motivate avoidance behavior rather than achievement. And safety incentive programs based on outcomes stifle injury reporting - a behavior useful for learning how to prevent further injuries. More effective alternatives include behavior-based incentive/reward programs and interpersonal recognition (see my December 1996, and January 1997, ISHN articles).

Key points

I hope these questions help you analyze the ongoing influences that shape safe and at-risk behavior in your workplace - why workers do what they do. Which consequences can you change, and how will you do it? Remember these keys when attempting to change behavior:

  • Make sure expectations are clear. Do people know exactly what to do?
  • Set up some kind of feedback mechanism so they will know when they are meeting expectations.

It's possible that the behavioral discrepancy is due to a skill deficiency, meaning the performer doesn't know how to do what's expected. In this case training may be called for, but there are other possible approaches to effective corrective action. I'll explore these in my ISHN contribution next month.

By E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Virginia Tech and senior partner with Safety Performance Solutions. SPS helps companies analyze their occupational safety and health discrepancies related to employee behavior - from the line worker to the plant manager. Contact SPS at (540) 951-7233;