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Promoting a Workplace Health and Safety Culture

Promoting a Workplace Health and Safety Culture

Health and safety in the workplace is influenced by a number of factors, including the organisational environment, managers' attitude, commitment to the nature of the job or task and the personal attributes of the worker.

Safety-related behaviour in the workplace can be changed by addressing such influences. One way to improve safety performance is to introduce a behavioural safety process that identifies and reinforces safe behaviour and reduces unsafe behaviour.

Behavioural safety processes aren't a 'quick fix'. There are some fundamental elements to implement. These include policies, systems, assessing and improving management performance and operational factors, training and design.

What is behavioural safety?
Behaviour is defined as an action by an individual that is observable by others.

It's estimated that in up to 80% of work-related accidents, employees' behaviour is a contributing factor, in the form of acts or omissions. Behaviour can pave the way for different pre-existing factors to align into a negative event.

Employees engage in 'at-risk' behaviour at work to achieve a perceived benefit. For example:

  • cutting corners to save time - not using personal protective equipment (PPE) because a task may only take seconds to complete
  • ergonomic factors - inappropriately designed machine controls may lead to the adoption of improvised and potentially dangerous methods
  • accepted practice - "we've always done it that way"
  • reinforcement by the actions of supervisors - "my supervisor turns a blind eye when we do this because it means we get things done quicker".

Why do people fail?
Accidents can occur through people's involvement with their work. As technical systems have become more reliable, the focus has turned to human causes of accidents. It is estimated that up to 80% of accidents may be attributed, at least in part, to the actions or omissions of people. This is not surprising, since people are involved throughout the life cycle of an organisation, from design through to operation, maintenance, management and demolition. Many accidents are blamed on the actions or omissions of an individual who was directly involved in operational or maintenance work. This typical but short-sighted response ignores the fundamental failures which led to the accident. These are usually rooted deeper in the organisation's design, management and decision making functions. There are different types of human failures, such as errors and violations.

Human failures - an action or decision which was not intended, which involved a deviation from an accepted standard, and which led to an undesirable outcome.
Errors - fall into three categories: slips, lapses and mistakes.
Violations - a deliberate deviation from a rule or procedure. It is an intentional but usually well-meaning failure where the person deliberately does not carry out the procedure correctly. It is rarely malicious (sabotage) and usually results from an intention to get the job done as efficiently as possible. Violations often occur where the equipment or task has been poorly designed and/or maintained.

Mistakes resulting from poor training (that is, people have not been properly trained in the safe working procedure) are often mistaken for violations. Understanding that violations are occurring and understanding the reasons for them are necessary if effective means for avoiding them are to be introduced. Peer pressure, unworkable rules and incomplete understanding can give rise to violations.

Slips and lapses occur in very familiar tasks needing little conscious attention. These tasks are called 'skill-based' and are very vulnerable to errors if attention is diverted, even momentarily. Slips are failures in carrying out an action in a task. They are described as 'actions-not-as-planned'. Lapses cause us to forget to carry out an action, to lose our place in a task or even to forget what we had intended to do.

Mistakes are a more complex type of human error where we do the wrong thing, believing it to be right. Rule-based mistakes occur when our behaviour is based on remembered rules or familiar procedures.

Knowledge-based mistakes occur when we misdiagnose or miscalculate a problem, resulting in the incorrect action.

Understanding these different types of human failure can help identify control measures, but you need to be careful that you do not oversimplify the situation. In some cases, it can be difficult to place an error in a single category - it may result from a slip or a mistake, for example. There may be a combination of underlying causes requiring a combination of preventative measures. It may also be useful to think about whether the failure is an error of omission (forgetting or missing out a key step) or an error of commission (doing something out of sequence or using the wrong control) and acting to prevent that type of error.

The likelihood of these human failures is determined by the condition of a finite number of 'performance influencing factors', such as design of interfaces, distraction, time pressure, workload, competence, morale, noise levels and communication systems.

How does behavioural safety work?
It's possible to recognise a number of common features across the various systems:

  • Leading from the top. Top management needs to 'buy into' the programme to ensure commitment and resources for the organisation.
  • Significant workforce participation. Full engagement of the workforce in the programme is an essential part of behavioural safety. Without this engagement, it's difficult to make improvements.
  • Targeting specific unsafe behaviours. Focus on a small number of unsafe behaviours that are responsible for a large proportion of an organisation's accidents or incidents. These can be identified by systematically examining the organisation's accident and incident records.
  • Observational data collection. Trained observers regularly monitor colleagues' safety behaviour against agreed measures. Making an observation is like taking a photograph - it provides a snapshot of a moment in time. The greater the number of observations, the more reliable the data becomes, as the employees' true behavioural pattern can be established
  • Data-driven decision-making processes. The data from the observation process allow you to measure safety performance. You can then examine trends in these data to identify the key operational areas that need improvement. It's then possible to reinforce employees' safe behaviour positively, while taking steps to correct unsafe behaviours.
  • Organised improvement intervention. The planned intervention often begins with briefing sessions in the work areas and departments that will be involved.
  • Regular, focused feedback on continuing performance. Feedback is the key ingredient of any type of improvement initiative. In behavioural safety systems, feedback usually takes three forms: verbal feedback to people at the time of observation; visual feedback on charts displayed in the workplace; and weekly or monthly briefings where detailed observational data are provided about specific employee behaviours.
  • Visible continuing support from managers. It's vital that managers show visible leadership and commitment to the process.

Should you require any further information, clarification or assistance with the safety culture in your workplace, please contact us on or 01268 649006