Behavioural safety has received some flak recently. Because the theory suggests that the vast majority of injuries are rooted in an unsafe act, it could be used as a mechanism for blaming people for their own accident. And it has to be said that the people voicing these opinions have a point.

For example, if someone walks across rough ground instead of a walkway trips, falls and breaks their ankle then it must be their own fault, mustn’t it? Well the answer is yes and um… er no. Obviously, the knee jerk reaction to such an incident should be to label the injured party a knave and banish them from the kingdom. But it is precisely these incidents that cause line managers to tear their hair out with frustration “how can I stop someone falling over in the car park!?”

There’s more to changing behaviour than just changing behaviour

When I began my career as a purveyor of culture change services it was a fairly common occurrence for some managers to arrive at my training workshops convinced that behavioural safety meant sorting out the behaviours of that lot out there. Effectively their position was that the organisation would transform into the land of milk and honey if only people would do as they were told.

Of course the trouble with this view is that it avoids the uncomfortable truth that the workforce might be ‘misbehaving’ because of the way that the leaders influence safety and, god forbid, maybe even the way that they behave themselves! What have the leadership team done (or not done) to imply it’s OK to walk across the rough ground and risk a trip rather than staying on a walkway? Do managers always use the walkway themselves? If someone is injured in this way we have to ask ourselves “why did this person think it was OK to stray off the walkway?” instead of just blaming them for their own injury and moving on.

Behavioural change simply isn’t enough

Matches being lit

Leaders must demonstrate … in turn the workforce must respond

We’re looking for changes in attitude, values and beliefs at all levels in the organisation and this requires a change in culture. This is best illustrated by organisations in which staff from the engineering department will always wear eye protection when using power tools at work but never wear them when drilling a wall at home. This situation is a prime example of making the behaviour change (at work) but not accomplishing the change in attitude required.

In these situations individuals will eventually fall over on the rough ground because moving around the site is not seen as a task or even being at work and therefore the lower standard of safety applies. This is the drawback with processes that specifically change behaviour but don’t address the culture too.

The grand equation

Safety performance is dependent on the strength of the safety culture and in turn the strength of the safety culture depends on how the leadership values safety. At this point the workforce can heave a sigh of relief and relax because injuries are all management’s fault. Correct? Well sadly no, unfortunately you’re all in the same boat and tests have shown that members of the workforce are generally the losers in a poor safety culture, not the leadership.

This is the deal

For safety excellent performance you need a safety excellent culture. This in turn means that leaders must really, really value safety and must demonstrate this via their own behaviour, enthusiasm and commitment. In turn the workforce must respond by mentally assessing the risk, recognising their part in protecting themselves and taking action accordingly.

Simple isn’t it? Next week: how to achieve world peace.