Behavioural safety

In recent years there has been an increase in the use of behavioural safety or behaviour modification approaches. These interventions generally involve the observation and assessment of certain behaviours, usually those of front-line personnel. The rationale behind behavioural safety approaches is that accidents are caused by the unsafe behaviours of front-line staff.

A full description of behaviour modification theory and the key elements of observation and feedback programmes is provided in Fleming & Lardner (2002). The Energy Institute (2011) provides the following helpful definitions:

Behaviour observation: any formal programme of comparing by observation workplace behaviours with pre-planned arrangements (e.g. safety critical procedures, work permits, method statements).
Behaviour modification: a systematic approach to achieving a change in ‘at risk’ behaviour whilst positively reinforcing safe behaviour (e.g. by coaching, system changes or other means).

As a UK HSE inspector, my site inspections and investigations showed that many major hazard facilities considered ‘behavioural safety’ to be equal to ‘human factors’, and were therefore failing to address the full range of human factors topics.

Behavioural safety isn’t a magic bullet

“Behavioural interventions can demonstrate improvements in the wearing of PPE, but this is of little relevance if those wearing the PPE do not have the underlying process knowledge to respond appropriately to a developing incident, or if there are insufficient operators available” (Anderson, 2005).

Behavioural safety and major accident hazards - Magic bullet or shot in the dark?
Click image for the full paper (pros and cons of behavioural safety)

In 2004 I presented at the Hazards conference, outlining my concerns on the use of such approaches on major hazard facilities. This presentation led to a paper published by the IChemE in 2005. My concerns included:

  • these programmes tend to focus on intuitive issues and personal health and safety, ignoring low probability/high consequence risks. Therefore behavioural safety programmes may draw attention away from major hazards or ‘process safety’
  • if successful, behavioural interventions will reduce accidents and ill-health of personnel. However, occupational health and safety incidents are not a valid indicator of how well an organisation is managing major incidents
  • a tendency to focus on individuals – and fail to address management behaviours and decisions, which have a significant impact on safety performance
  • although industry increasingly recognises that incidents have underlying and systemic causes distant from the person who is directly involved, initiatives to prevent such incidents are often targeted at front line staff
  • a focus on training and procedures as mechanisms to improve safety performance, whereas in fact, engineering or design solutions would be more effective
  • there was a mind-set that industry had perfected engineering and technology, and that effective systems were implemented; and so the ‘final frontier’ involved addressing behaviours. However, in my experience incidents were still occurring due to inadequate engineering design and ineffective management systems.  A publication by the Step Change initiative in the offshore oil and gas industry acknowledges that:

“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).

  • safe behaviours, or the ‘mindfulness’ of operators will not compensate for over-riding production demands, insufficient numbers of personnel, inadequate shift patterns, inadequate process training, unclear roles/responsibilities or outsourcing of technical expertise and so on
  • Human Reliability Assessment techniques and approaches focus on analysing the behaviours of those personnel in direct contact with equipment, plant and technology. Little progress has been made in the assessment of failures at the design stage; or systemic organisational and management failures that influence direct failures.

Safety culture surveys have been very popular in recent years and these initiatives are also usually aimed at understanding and optimising the attitudes of front line personnel – rather than investigating management attitudes and behaviours.

One of my favourite safety quotes is from the late Prof. Trevor Kletz, who in discussing the focus on front-line staff in the reported causes of accidents, stated that:

“Managers and designers, it seems, are either not human or do not make errors” (Kletz 2001, p.317).

Case study: Macondo (2010)

My concerns about the focus of behavioural approaches on personal safety at the expense of process safety were validated in the Macondo disaster, on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on 20 April 2010.  In their investigation into the explosion and fire at the Macondo well, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) discussed the behavioural approaches employed by Transocean, the owner of the drilling rig:

“The aims of programs such as THINK and START are to reinforce safe behavior and correct unsafe acts or conditions. These programs rely upon the employees to observe and recognize unsafe situations or activities. Thus, the types of safety issues likely to be documented are those that are readily observable, such as breaches to occupational safety rules and policies (e.g., missing personal protective equipment, poor housekeeping). However, process safety hazards and the active and passive safeguards meant to control, reduce, or mitigate them are not always readily observable. Thus, the THINK and START programs emphasized worker focus on personal safety observations and easily identifiable deviations from safety rules and company practices” (CSB, 2016, Vol. 3, p.145).

Are there any advantages to behavioural safety approaches?

Of course, any intervention that can have a positive effect on safety performance is worth considering. The research literature and my interventions on sites show that these approaches can be successful in reducing unsafe behaviours in the workplace (although this is not always the case).

However, besides the potential impact on behaviours, there are a number of other less tangible benefits, including:

  • management demonstrate their commitment to improving safety
  • the workforce and management talking to each other about safety
  • increased profile of health and safety
  • increased visibility of management in the workplace
  • employee engagement in safety
  • managers/supervisors learn to act promptly on unsafe acts (and have a legitimate mechanism for doing so)
  • managers/supervisors may improve their safety leadership
  • managers/supervisors learn to think about human factors.

How to increase the chances of success

Recognise that behavioural safety interventions are only one aspect of ‘human factors’ and that these programmes are only one tool in the safety practitioner’s toolbox.  Know the limits of such interventions and prepare the ground before attempting such an intervention.

In order for a behavioural intervention to prosper, there needs to be:

  • an appropriate balance between ‘production’ and safety
  • visible and real management to health and safety
  • management commitment and the resources to see the intervention through
  • a high level of trust between management and employees.

More information on behavioural safety

Martin Anderson Receiving Hutchison Medal from IChemE Chief Executive Trevor Evans
Receiving Hutchison Medal from IChemE Chief Executive Trevor Evans

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.

Behaviour modification programmes – Establishing best practice. Offshore Technology Report 048. HSE (2000). This report will assist the reader in designing, implementing and improving safety behaviour modification programmes. Four case studies were carried out to provide information about the range of programmes currently being used and identify barriers and enablers associated with these behaviour modification programmes.

Strategies to promote safe behaviour as part of a health and safety management system. HSE Contract Research Report 430, HSE (2002). This report aims to provide the reader with an understanding of:

  • The theory underpinning strategies to promote safe behaviour
  • The key elements of programmes in use to promote safe behaviour
  • How to use behavioural strategies to promote critical health and safety behaviours
  • How to integrate behavioural strategies into a health and safety management system.

Safety Culture Maturity Model.  HSE (2000). Offshore Technology Report, OTO 2000/049. This report describes the development of a draft Safety Culture Maturity Model (SCMM). This model will assist organisations in establishing their current level of safety culture maturity and identifying the actions required to improve their culture.

Changing Minds: A practical guide for behavioural change in the oil and gas industry.  Step Change (2000). This report aims to provide a practical framework for the process of identifying behavioural issues and taking effective action to address them. Although the report stressed that addressing behaviours is not an alternative to ensuring that adequate engineering design and effective safety management systems are in place, many organisations placed an unhealthy focus on behaviours.