by Phil La Duke
It’s been awhile since I blogged about the role of behavior in worker safety. Truth be told, despite the tonnage of digital ink I have devoted to criticizing Behavior Based Safety, I am a firm believer in an organization’s need to address worker behaviors that cause injuries, but I differ with many BBS devotees on the best way to do so.
Variation in human behavior represents the biggest challenge to maintaining a robust and reliable process; whether you are seeking to prevent quality defects, reduce cost, or eliminate injuries you have to consider the effects of human behavior on your process. That having been said, if we are going to address behavioral causes of Injuries, shouldn’t we concentrate on behaviors we can do something about?
Human error is as much a part of being human as anything else; it’s practically encoded in our DNA. Researchers estimate that the average person makes five mistakes an hour. There seems to be a biological imperative that compels us to make mistakes. Some believe that mistakes are our subconscious’ way of testing the safety of rapidly adapting to our surroundings. Irrespective of why we make mistakes, it’s certain that people will make mistakes no matter how hard we try. Not that we should give up. While we can’t completely eradicate mistakes we can reduce the probability that human error will result in serious injury or death. Mistake-proofing equipment and processes is an integral part of any safety management process. We should think of mistake proofing as making our process more forgiving, more tolerant of mistakes.
Of course, we can’t bubble-wrap the world, and any control has limits. We may not be able to prevent mistakes or protect people from their mistakes, but we can work on ensuring that factors that make mistakes more common are controlled. There are many things that can make mistakes more likely—from fatigue, drug- or alcohol abuse, to lack of training or stress. Organizations should redouble their efforts to help workers to manage the things in life that make mistakes more common and potentially, more deadly.
Flawed Decision Making
While human error is inevitable, flawed decision-making need not be. Workers often make decisions that result in injurious consequences. Organizations wishing to reduce behavior-related injuries should seriously consider training workers in decision analysis and decision making techniques.
Not all bad decisions are the product of a lack of decision making skills, however, and if an organization discovers a pattern of poor decision making it should take a hard, diagnostic look at its communication. Often decisions that end in injury are poorly made because someone believed something was true when it wasn’t or didn’t believe it was true when it was. A lack of communication, or poor communication channels can seriously disrupt the decision making process.
Every action carries some element of risk with it. Risk is neither good nor bad, and often we are called on to take risks as part of our daily jobs. The key is not to have workers become risk averse, instead, we should develop the skills so that workers can take educated, controlled, and planned risks. When teaching workers how to manage the risks they take, it’s important that organizations train the workers in core skills. Unless workers understand the limits endemic to their processes the risks they take will be more gambles than controlled and planned risk. While you can coach workers on the inappropriateness of the risks they have taken, it’s far better to educate workers before they are faced with the decision than reactively.
Sometimes workers are so derelict in their duties that we describe their behavior as carelessness. While some argue that carelessness doesn’t truly exist—that the behavior is really poorly managed performance impediments or recklessness—there are times when a worker is so distracted, manages his or her performance impeding factors, or simply cares so little about the quality of his or her performance that one could accurately characterize the behavior as carelessness. Carelessness is likely a disciplinary issue; it is unlikely that training, coaching, or mistake proofing will have any meaningful effect.
Sometimes workers will—out of frustration, belligerence, or maliciousness—act in a way so fraught with danger that it can only be categorized as recklessness. Recklessness is not the act of a mature, responsible professional and it should be addressed surely and immediately. If the reckless behavior continues the worker should be fired; as drastic as that sounds it may be the only way to protect the organization from the extreme dangers associated with reckless behavior.
Incenting Safe Behaviors
What all these behaviors share is that there is little use in trying to use antiquated behavior modification techniques to change the behaviors. Traditional incentive and awards is not likely to change subconscious behavior, and attempts to do so can be costly and destructive. In fact, there is very little we can do externally to change behaviors that aren’t deliberate or that are the product of poor decision making or inappropriate risk taking.
Just because behavior modification and incentives are of limited value and effectiveness doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything to reduce the variability in human behavior that causes injuries. The first and most important step is observations. There is a pervasive belief that the only effective way to do safety observations is peer-to-peer; I don’t believe this, but I will leave those criticisms for another day. We can’t address unsafe behaviors unless we know when and why they occur. A safety observation can be as simple as a supervisor walking his or her work area talking to workers and watching them as they worker work. Supervisors can coach workers on managing performance impediments, risk taking, and decision making while being alert for carelessness or recklessness.
 I’ve cited this research many times. I saw a speaker on patient safety at a medical conference. I took detailed notes as to the research that concluded this, but sadly lost it in a flood (along with many other irreplaceables). If anyone knows the study, the researcher, or a parallel source of the findings I would sure appreciate hearing from them.