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Understanding Behaviour Based Safety

I have found it compelling to write this article because it is becoming more and more fashionable to condemn and discredit the principles of behaviour based safety. Common statements like “it puts the blame on the worker” or “It fails to understand the complexity of behaviour”. I find this intriguing as over the last two decades I have experienced the opposite. While there are many examples where these concerns are true, there are also many examples where they are not. Let’s confirm the core principles of Behaviour Based Safety.

The first principle; the most acknowledged people of exposure in the workplace are the front-line employees. This means developing a process which engages employees directly to define, monitor and improve our efforts to control and reduce exposure is the foundation of any Behaviour Based Safety program.

The second principle; engagement can only be created with leadership support developing a culture of trust. This means employees and leaders collaborating together to understand and learn what is occurring and what should happen to improve is also fundamental to any behaviour based safety program.

The third principle; understanding and applying ABC Analysis. This means recognising that behaviour is an “observable action”, something everyone does and it is not about good or bad. That exposure is created only when people interact with hazards, therefore understanding the relationship people have with hazards is fundamental to not only behaviour based safety programs but safety in general.

ABC Analysis is the foundation of behaviour based safety. This is where complexity occurs because knowing the different Antecedents and Consequences is difficult. ABC Analysis outlines that there are triggers for behaviour (Antecedents). These are things that happen before a behaviour occurs, which can encourage or discourage a certain action. When taking an integral model (Ken Wilber) look at this, meaning an individual’s beliefs, feelings, and values will form a significant part of how someone will act. There is also the collective social beliefs and values “culture” which impacts how people feel they need to behaviour to fit in, while the systems and structure outline how we expect people to behave. 

The other is understanding that consequences occur from performing behaviours. Now, this is where things get very complex and multidimensional. Consequences are not equal and they are both naturally occurring and artificially occurring. This means every time we do something there are consequences, even without us noticing them. Consequences which are positive to the individual means they are likely to perform that action again, while negative consequences mean they are less likely to do that action again.

Behaviouralists say that consequences control behaviour, people have concerns with this statement because of the word “controls”.  Also, when people don’t actually try and understand the complexity of this principle, they short cut the approach by using inappropriate and inauthentic positive or negative consequences and think this solves the problem. When you truly look at things as Antecedents and Consequences you will see this fundamental principle still holds true. Let’s look at an example:

My leader says to me that they want me to speak up if I have a safety concern; “Antecedent”. I then raise a concern; “Behaviour”, and the leader responds with appreciation and immediate action; “Consequence”. Because the leader backed up what they said my feelings of trust increase towards them becoming a stronger antecedent.

Psychological safety has become very important learning in recent years and that’s because TRUST is such a powerful antecedent and consequence. Trust is both an individual belief and feeling as well as a collective social feeling and belief. When leaders support and back their employees, they build more trust, meaning behavioural reliability increases. This means when behaviour based safety is done with all principles in mind we engage the workforce more effectively, leaders are supporting and backing their teams and collectively they are controlling and reducing their exposures.

For me, I really appreciate the new insights around mindfulness, social psychology and neuroscience because it is helping get a deeper understanding of ABC analysis. Knowing more about the individual, collective and systems which drive behaviour allows everyone to support each other more effectively. I believe we are learning more and more about ourselves and culture every day, I also believe we must not shutdown other principles to drive our own agendas. We are all striving for the same thing in safety; to Save Lives.