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Focus on Behavior to Manage Risk the Right Way

By Thomas E. Boyce, Ph.D.

I have been assisting a large aggregate company in the western United States to implement a Behavior-Based Safety Process. This project started after the plant GM and HR Manager heard me speak at an MSHA Spring Thaw event where the theme of my talk was, “the best way to change others’ behaviors is to change your own.” Indeed, when the principles of human behavior are understood, changing one’s behavior to have a positive impact on the behaviors of others becomes possible. And, behavior starts to appear much more orderly and even predictable.

Why Employees Take Risks

Behavioral scientists have long demonstrated that behavior is a function of its consequences. That is, behaviors that produce positive outcomes for the performer will increase in strength and be repeated in the future.

We turn on the light switch in dark room because the lights come on.

We take an aspirin when we have a headache because the pain goes away.

We proceed on a green light at an intersection to make progress to our destination.

A positive consequence can be either the addition of something we want (e.g., the light goes on) or the elimination of something we don’t want (e.g., the pain goes away). Our experience with these consequences of our actions determines the probability that we’ll perform that behavior again in similar situations in the future.

Sometimes experience teaches us the wrong thing. We stand on the chair to change a light bulb; we drive over the speed limit; we take a shortcut at work because all of these behaviors produce the positive consequence of time-saving.

Time-saving becomes more valuable than avoiding the injury because our experience tells us that we are very certain to get the time-saving right away and we’re not likely to get hurt. You see, consequences that are Positive (they are something we want), Immediate (they occur soon after the behavior), and Certain (there’s a high chance we’ll get it) are always more powerful than those that are Negative (something we would not want), Future (they are delayed), and Uncertain (there is a low probability, at least relative to that which we expect to get).

The former qualities are all characteristics of time-saving, comfort, and convenience as motivation for at-risk behavior. And, the latter are all qualities of an injury that should motivate safer behavior. This is the safety trap. We work to get the certain and immediate positive rather than to avoid the uncertain and potentially delayed negative consequence. Add pressure to get the job done from a well-intentioned but unobservant boss and risk-taking becomes the way we do business because time-saving takes on an even greater value.

Increasing the Occurrence of Safety-Related Behaviors

So, how do we address this trap? First, we must acknowledge that it exists and determine under what circumstances our employees are more likely to fall into the trap. Perhaps it occurs when we announce a new production goal, or when the boss is stressed and barks orders at his/her employees rather than empowering them to do the work they’ve been trained to do.

Perhaps it’s more likely during a shut down, at the end of a shift, or when performing certain tasks. The way we determine this is to observe what our employees are doing and to perform an informal analysis. In other words, we must focus on behavior.

When we manage risk with a focus on behavior we identify the potential for an injury rather than reacting to it. A focus on behavior also allows us to effectively increase the value of the safe behavior relative at-risk behavior by applying performance feedback as a consequence for each. Specifically, positive feedback is offered to reinforce safe behaviors, making them more likely. And at-risk behavior brings immediate corrective feedback not only reducing exposure to the risk, but also making these behaviors less likely in the future.

If we compile what was observed over a period of time (without the need to know “who did what”), we can also generate a pool of information to determine if the issues observed were more than isolated events. Indeed, an analysis of the summarized “data” can help us implement systemic change where warranted.

For example, with their Behavior-Based Safety process, my client referenced above quantified how often their workforce failed to use wheel chocks. When it was determined that most didn’t use their chocks because they believed it to be inconvenient relative to the benefit gained, the site made “double long-handled” wheel chocks and placed them in every piece of mobile equipment.

These newly designed wheel chocks made it easier for personnel to place and remove their wheel chocks. As a result, safety in this area dramatically improved. Prior to this process, they were “writing up” these failures with only a minimal positive impact on behavior and a host of negative, emotional fall-out.

Case in Point

The data presented here provide a sample of the results produced when a facility focuses on behavior to prevent injuries. Figure 1 below shows the Total Medical Rate for a mining facility before and after implementation of Behavior-Based Safety. Note the upward trend followed by a significant drop in incidents, and then continuous improvement after a relatively good year. This change was precisely what the facility had wanted the Behavior-Based Safety process to accomplish. That is, after changing the cycle of “good followed by bad,” Behavior-Based Safety produced a second “good” year in a row.

The facility spent a majority of their time during early phases of the Behavior-Based Safety process increasing the number of observations made by employees. And they did this with great success. As seen in Figure 2 below, increases in observations were correlated with a decrease in the Total Medical Rate, their KPI for safety success. (Please note: Although significant, changes in injury rate can appear subtle because, relative to other measures, injuries occur infrequently. In fact, this is why using only injury rate as a measure of your safety success can be problematic). Strategies used to increase the number of observations included designing department specific observation cards and the creation of area specific Behavior-Based Safety teams in year two. Effective goal-setting and feedback interventions and behavior-focused incentive/rewards were also strategically used.

Concluding Comments

When you teach and empower your workforce to appropriately apply the principles of behavioral science to manage risk, you will create ownership around safety, and identify and solve safety issues before the injuries occur. Indeed, the application of behavioral science to prevent injuries is not new, but using the principles correctly requires more than a casual understanding of “why people do what they do;” because human beings are complex, machinery is complex, and rock products facilities are a complex mixture of union and non-union employees, management, supervision and contractors.

Thus, to be successful over the long-term you must pave the road to zero injuries with the correct products. I’m sure that everyone reading this would advise their customers of the same thing regarding the rock products their company supplies.

Dr. Thomas E. (Ted) Boyce is a behavioral strategist and president and senior consultant with the Center for Behavioral Safety LLC. The Center is a Nevada- and California-Based Safety and Leadership consulting firm that turns managers into leaders and helps companies create an injury-free workplace. Learn more at or contact Dr. Boyce directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..