According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 441,000 non-fatal workplace accidents occurred in 2020/21. Of these accidents, slips, trips and falls were the most common kind. Accidents like these can occur through workplace hazards or human error, or a combination of both.
Organisations in the UK have a legal obligation to protect their employees, customers and members of the public from workplace hazards. Along with producing health and safety guidelines, conducting risk assessments and providing employees with health and safety training, employers should consider behavioural safety and its role in helping to create safer workplaces.
What does ‘behavioural safety’ mean?
Behavioural safety refers to health and safety approaches that focus on potentially ‘unsafe’ human behaviour that may result in accidents. It is often described as tackling ‘unconscious’ behaviour – potential dangerous habits and practices that an individual may not know about or be aware of.
A concept that’s been around since the 1930s with the advent of Heinrich’s triangle, behavioural safety aims to build safe habits in individuals by challenging potentially unsafe behaviour. Behavioural safety puts the attention on individuals rather than the employers, implying that workplace health and safety guidelines are effective only to a point.
Because behavioural safety methods aim to modify behaviour, it is also sometimes referred to as ‘behavioural modification‘.
How does behavioural safety affect workplace health and safety?
Behavioural safety views employees as having direct control over any hazardous behaviour they engage in, such as taking shortcuts or carrying too many items. Employees might engage in this behaviour even when it is warned against in an organisation’s written health and safety policies. This is where phrases such as “but we’ve always done it this way” or “it’s never caused a problem before, so why make changes now?” can be heard. They may be true in some cases, and accidents may not yet have happened as a result, but does that mean the actions are actually safe?
Health and safety policies have played a major role in reducing the number of workplace injuries, accidents and deaths since the introduction of the Health and Safety Act in 1974. As a direct result of this Act, non-fatal injuries in the workplace fell by 70% between 1974 and 2007. Workplace fatalities also fell by 74% in the same period.
How to implement behavioural safety
In the workplace, health and safety is viewed as the responsibility of the management. These behaviours can be hard to unlearn because unconscious behaviour results from months or years of unchallenged actions.
A basic behavioural safety framework may look something like this:
- Define what counts as ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ behaviours.
- Observe employees taking part in unsafe behaviours.
- Discuss these behaviours and the potential risks with employees.
- Explain what can be done to mitigate the unsafe behaviour.
- Provide employees with the necessary information or training to correct their unsafe behaviour.
- Observe employee behaviour after training and feedback on whose behaviour had become safer.
- Share these results with the employees – reward those who were safe and encourage those who were not.
It is important to remember that there is no one correct way to engage in behavioural safety. The term applies to a collection of frameworks, and what framework is used depends on the organisation and its circumstances.
What are the pitfalls with behavioural safety?
A central belief of behavioural safety is that workplace injuries are a result of unsafe acts by employees.
Critics of behavioural safety, on the other hand, would argue that say that the main cause of injuries is failings in the management of health and safety. This is because before an accident can occur, there must be a hazard. If a hazard results in an accident or injury, the blame falls on management for not identifying it and then removing or mitigating the risk.
For example, an employee may slip on an unclean warehouse floor. The employer may say it’s the fault of the employee for not looking where they were walking or for wearing the wrong footwear, but the employee could say that it’s the employers fault for the floor not being clean.
Behavioural safety also overlooks the Hawthorn effect – when those who know they are being observed change their behaviour to match what the observer expects/wants to see. Employees who know they are being observed for ‘unsafe’ behaviour may avoid doing so, but once they are no longer being watched, they may revert to less safe behaviours.
While the Hawthorn effect and a possible over-emphasis on human actions rather than the removal and management of hazards must be taken into account, behavioural safety can play an important role in improving workplace health and safety.
How can behavioural safety improve workplace health and safety?
Behaviour in the workplace is a key concern for employer, as employees must comply with health and safety policies in order for them to be effective. To encourage safer behaviour, employers could require employees to to attend health and safety seminars, regularly take part in online eLearning health and safety training to reinforce safer behaviour or be a part of conducting risk assessments.