Should you focus on behaviours?

In recent weeks I’ve read several posts online that promote focusing on the behaviours of individual employees in order to manage workplace health and safety. This is a simplistic approach that ignores many wider issues, and so I want to provide a contrary view.

Consider the following scenario. A Boeing 737 MAX aircraft crashes shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 passengers and crew on board. In charge of the company response, would you:

  1. Implement a program to change the behaviour of pilots?
  2. Consider design changes to the aircraft’s automated flight control system?

The appropriate response would be a combination of the two approaches. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States required a number of design changes to the aircraft, along with revisions to the pilot training program, before these aircraft return to commercial service. An approach that focused simply on changing the behaviour of pilots would not be sustainable, and incidents would likely continue.

The majority of accidents and incidents are not caused by ‘careless workers’ but by failures in control, which are the responsibility of management.

UK Health and Safety Executive, HSG65, 1997

If applied effectively, a focus on behaviours can improve health and safety performance in the workplace. However, before any initiative to change behaviours, several other conditions must be satisfied first.

The Hierarchy of Control is a key concept, providing an order of priority for taking measures in relation to health and safety. This approach is embedded in the legal frameworks of many countries and helps employers to demonstrate that they have fulfilled their legal responsibilities. This process should be undertaken in consultation with those who actually do the work.

To reduce risks to the lowest level possible, start with option (1) and work down the list. Consider the headings in the order shown, do not simply jump to the easiest control measure to implement. The more severe the potential consequences or number of people affected, the more important it is to focus on controls at the top of the hierarchy.

  1. Elimination: Redesign the work activity so that the hazard is removed or eliminated.
  2. Substitution: Replace the material or process with a less hazardous one.
  3. Engineering controls: Redesign the workplace to place a barrier between people and the hazard.
  4. Administrative controls: Implement policies and procedures to support working safely, and limit exposure time.
  5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): The use of PPE such as hard hats, gloves, face masks, protective eyewear.

The last two options rely heavily on human behaviour (“fixing the worker”) and are the least effective controls. They are a last resort when nothing else is reasonably practicable (but can be helpful in combination with higher-level control measures). For example, eliminating falls from height by enabling the work to be completed at ground level is preferable to telling the workforce to be careful, or providing safety harnesses (that the workforce may or may not use). Ensure that any controls do not introduce new hazards. Controls should be regularly reviewed to check that they continue to remain effective, and this should include seeking feedback from users.

It is preferable to have risk control measures that operate without human intervention. When a measure relies on the actions of people, it is inevitable that on some occasions it will not be used, either deliberately or inadvertently. Managing behaviours should never be used to compensate for poorly-designed equipment or workplaces.

“addressing behaviours must not be seen as an alternative to ensuring that adequate engineering design and effective safety management systems are in place”.

Step Change, 2000

What’s important is setting people up to succeed. We can achieve this by optimising the work equipment, work design and the workplace. For example, rather than encouraging people to adapt to new technologies, we should instead build technology around people, their capabilities and characteristics.

Alphonse Chapanis, considered to be one of the fathers of human factors (he published the first textbook on human factors in 1949), wrote:

“Everyone, and that includes you and me, is at some time careless, complacent, overconfident, and stubborn. At times each of us becomes distracted, inattentive, bored and fatigued. We occasionally take chances, we misunderstand, we misinterpret, and we misread. These are completely human characteristics. …Because we are human and because all these traits are fundamental and built into each of us, the equipment, machines and systems that we construct for our use have to be made to accommodate us the way we are, and not vice versa” (Chapanis, 1985).

My experience is that many organisations have matured their approach to incident investigations to look for deeper causes than simply concluding that an incident was due to “human error”. In their investigations, companies often seek to understand the influence of fatigue, time pressure, priorities, the design of controls and displays, staffing levels, the role of automation, and so on.

However, this maturity hasn’t necessarily transferred to the approaches that organisations take in their strategies to proactively manage health and safety; which explains the many articles on social networks focusing on worker behaviours. Cultural or behavioural interventions will only be successful if engineering, technical and systems aspects are in place and adequately managed.

This paper therefore, argues that there exists an anomalous situation—on one hand industry increasingly recognizes that incidents have underlying causes distant from the person who is directly involved; however, on the other hand, resources to prevent such incidents are often targeted at front line staff.

Martin Anderson, 2005

If you want to change employee behaviours, don’t focus on changing your employees. Focus on making the work, the workplace and working conditions optimal. If you have well-designed shift patterns, appropriate staffing levels, clear roles and responsibilities, suitable controls and displays, equipment designed for users, clear procedures, appropriate training, the right level of supervision, etc., then you’ll go a long way to managing workplace health and safety.

Further information

Guidance on identifying and evaluating options for controlling hazards using the “hierarchy of controls” can be obtained from the UK HSE, OSHA and Safe Work Australia.

Guidance on the factors that influence behaviours (factors that are largely controlled by management) can be found here.

Behavioural safety and major accident hazards – Magic bullet or shot in the dark?  Martin Anderson (2005). Process Safety and Environmental Protection, 83(B2), pages 109–116. Presented at Hazards XVIII Symposium, UMIST, Manchester, 24 November 2004. A frequently-referenced publication that outlines the pros and cons of behavioural safety in the major hazard industries and how this fits into a wider human factors framework. I was honoured to have been awarded the IChemE Hutchison Medal in 2005 for this paper.

Changing Minds: A practical guide for behavioural change in the oil and gas industry.  Step Change (2000). Although this industry guidance aims to provide a practical framework for addressing behavioural issues, it stresses that this is not an alternative to ensuring that adequate engineering design and effective safety management systems are in place.

Title image credit: Hierarchy of Controls, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Comments are closed.

Up ↑