Here’s a surprising declaration: I’m not a fan of the term ‘behavioural safety (and it’s derivative – ‘behaviour based safety’). I’d stop short of hate because I’m a passionate believer in this area of safety and where it can get you. But I take issue with the phrase itself and what people sometimes think it actually means.

The problem with it is that ‘Behavioural safety’ has become a bit of a brand name for a certain type of safety process. It reminds me of people asking for a ‘Hoover’, when what they really mean is something to clean the floor with, or asking for an ‘iPod’, when they mean something portable to listen to music on. Whilst it’s clearly beneficial for those who sell on the strength of brand names, it doesn’t necessarily mean people really get what they need.

The reason that people are interested in behavioural safety specifically is that they’ve got to the point where they’ve spent time working on the regulatory stuff, safety systems and processes but they’re still having accidents in their organisation which is an immense source of frustration. Root cause analysis has led them to recognise that only by shifting behaviour from unsafe to safe are they going to stop hurting people. That’s why behavioural safety is the next obvious step.

Short-term and short-sighted

The traditional definition of behavioural safety is a system of behaviour identification, observation and follow-up. Which is OK, but only up to a certain point. Those of you experienced in delivering behavioural safety programmes, will recognise that you can’t deliver a real shift towards positive safe behaviour through behaviour identification, observation and follow up alone.

Colourful speech bubbles

I’ve seen some real problems in organisations exclusively focused on this behavioural observation approach. The main issue is that this approach tends to focus on jobs done at the production end of things, and the unsafe behaviour of the individuals doing those jobs. If you’re not careful, individuals feel like they’re being judged and blamed when they behave unsafely.

Recognition of some of the other factors behind unsafe workforce behaviour like management behaviour and the prevailing safety culture – are often sadly lacking. Even when the traditional approach does work in the short-term, without proper support and involvement of everyone it disintegrates quickly and leaves people with the impression of a short-lived initiative that actually takes the safety record backwards. And where there’s been union controversy around behavioural safety, I believe that poorly implemented observation systems have been the root cause.

Culture, conversations and engagement

To really change behaviour from unsafe to safe it’s about getting people properly engaged in the right safety culture (attitudes, values and beliefs of everyone in the organisation), not about just observing what they do and feeding that back to them. You must understand your organisation’s culture before you make people focus on safe behaviour. Because it’s culture that really defines what behaviours people undertake and what you need to engage with people about.

Next you create a proper culture of safety engagement through safety leadership at all levels, helping leaders (formal or otherwise) deal with the small stuff every day through effective conversations and learning. Conversations give you the ability to measure, understand and learn from behaviours in the organisation through discussion, as well as observation where appropriate. I’ve seen it many times: the more effective conversations that are held, the safer the behaviour and the better the injury record.

This isn’t the whole picture of course. There’s a lot of other things you can do to help drive for effective safety leadership and engagement, but hopefully you get the point.

I often hear people talk about the observation process that ‘defines’ behavioural safety, but for me it really does miss the whole point. Every organisation is made up of people with unique attitudes, values and beliefs. Only by truly engaging with them and creating the proper leadership to support that process will you really get the long-term safer behaviour that you need.