Safety “programs” that emphasize the role of human error/unsafe acts have an interesting history. While it is abundantly clear that a primary contributing cause of accidents across all work settings is unsafe behavior, many organizations still focus mainly, even exclusively, on the environment. While it is obviously important to identify hazardous working conditions and to rectify them, a strong focus could and should also be on behavior. Often it is not.

Knowing what we know, why would we not launch, fine-tune, and sustain safety initiatives that prominently include a focus on safe acts/best-practice behaviors?

I am a strong proponent of certain forms of so-called “behavior-based” or “people-based” safety programs. I have been able to help a number of companies develop and run such programs, with substantial (even dramatic) positive results. Such programs, and the results they produce, have contributed to the development of meaningful “positive safety cultures” in those organizations. In other cases, though, I have encountered a reaction somewhere between neutral and negative to the foundational idea of focusing on behavior.

Resisting the people approach

While I don’t propose that this is an exhaustive list, here are some of the “objections” I have encountered:

1) We have a good training program for new hires, and frequent refresher training for experienced employees. We do regular safety audits, and when we find hazardous conditions, we correct them. If we have been audited by OSHA (or other relevant regulatory agencies), we get no (or few) citations. We have gone X days without an LTA, so what we are doing is obviously working just fine.

2) Focusing on behavior appears to blame the worker for an accident, exposing him/her to jeopardy, when it is management’s responsibility to provide a safe work environment and appropriate training. Giving an under-trained employee shoddy equipment to work with and then expecting zero accidents is like giving a line worker the same and expecting 100 percent quality, zero defects. Dr. Deming (father of Total Quality Management) taught us that it’s the system, not the worker, that is to blame for poor quality. Safety is the same. A focus on employee behavior blames the worker and allows management to duck their responsibility.

3) We tried a behavior-based program and it was a failure. We spent a great deal of time and money creating and training a steering committee and numerous observation teams, and then running those observation teams, and generating reams and reams of data. We were overwhelmed by all the observation sheets, and all the time it took to run the program. Many employees reacted negatively to “being watched,” and anyway, knowing they were being watched they probably were more careful than usual. And we still have accidents!

No need for a blame game

I suggest that a focus on correcting unsafe acts and building consistently higher levels of safe behavior does not need to be a “blame game,” nor an expensive exercise in data-generation. In a true positive safety culture, we recognize that safe working conditions and appropriate training are critical elements, not to be ignored or underemphasized. But in reality, many accidents occur when well-trained employees working in a well-engineered environment do something they shouldn’t have done, or fail to do something they should have. I have been in on many accident investigations that bear this out.

We can identify our “high-risk” situations (when/where/how accidents are most likely), identify “best-practice” behaviors in those situations, and coach all employees in how to maintain mindfulness and to consistently demonstrate those best-practice behaviors.

We can also coach all employees in how to speak up when they see a co-worker (or a boss) engaging in unsafe behavior, and how to correct that behavior without getting into conflict.

We can become more able and willing to discuss and learn from “near miss” events.

We can plan and run safety meetings that engage employees and activate their safety awareness.

We can help all employees function as “safety leaders,” watching out for themselves and others as they go about their work.

The foregoing, along with a continued focus on identifying and eliminating hazardous conditions, and on effective safety training, are characteristics of a true positive safety culture. All this can be done without blame, fear, and jeopardy, for relatively little cost, and with extraordinarily beneficial outcomes.