Changing Your Organization’s Safety Habits

By Phil La Duke

Happy holidays.  I would blame the lack of a post last week on a “holiday hiatus” but the truth is my idea for a New Year post kept bumping up against my ideas for last week until posting it on Thursday seemed to be kind of pointless.  Since this is a completely free blog, (I neither do it while on a clock of any sort nor do I receive any compensation (direct or indirect)) I guess we can chock it up to “you get what you pay for”.

New Year is a time for resolutions and people start thinking about making changes, primarily in those habits they find less than desirable.  Last year at around this time I posted my “New Year’s Resolutions for Safety Professionals” ( ) and for those of you looking for more of the same, I’m sorry to disappoint.  After reviewing the post in question I didn’t see a whole lot of things I would change; sure there are things I’m tempted to add, but I doubt making the post longer would make it any better so I will leave it alone for now.

The secret to change lies in understanding how our habits to a very large extent determine how we live our lives and whether we become morbidly obese, change-smoking, degenerate gamblers. In his 2012 book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” Charles Duhigg explores how, despite free will, most of us live our lives doing things that are self-destructive, unpleasant, and that inhibit our success merely out of habit.  Duhigg believes that organizations, like individuals, operate largely out of habit, and while it may seem that people at the top of organizations are geniuses or imbeciles, much of a organization’s performance is rooted in habit.

Habits can be helpful or harmful. Some habits, like getting up early to exercise, carry with them significant benefits, while others, like eating when you’re not hungry, can cause serious, long-term health problems; its no different with organizations and those of you who are looking to change the “safety culture” of your organization should pay very close attention to those habits that are having the greatest influence over the relative safety of the organization.

According to Durhigg, there is a “habit loop” that turns deliberate behavior into a sort of an automatic sub-routine in our brains (see figure below).  I am oversimplifying Durhigg’s book, but since this is neither an academic paper nor a book report, I think I am within my rights.  Read the book; it’s worth it. There are some absolute gems in the book, real pearls of wisdom.  For example, research has found that the best way to effect change in a habit is by sandwiching change between the familiar, and this is something that safety professionals can really use.

Slide1The key to changing habits (personal OR institutional) is to keep the cue and reward while changing the activities.  What that means for safety professionals is that we can stop trying to force change through revolutionary efforts and can focus on evolutionary strategies instead.

Anyone who has tried to change the organization—whether by implementing an innovation or reengineering a function—can relate to the difficulty of introducing too much change at once.  Too much change and the organization will buck, but not enough change may mean decades of dysfunction. The baby bear solution (just right) is to keep the cue, replace the routine, and keep the reward.

This is the point you need to be careful not to over complicate things.  Durhigg says that you first need to understand the cues—but I don’t think that’s necessary here.  In most cases we already understand the cues, or the cues really don’t matter.  Take for instance one activity that is often fraught with bad habits: Observations.  What is the cue? for most organizations it’s a requirement. Similarly the reward remains constant,  getting something off your plate.  So while if you are looking to change a bad habit (Durhigg is adamant that once a habit has imprinted on your brain it’s there forever; you can never eliminate a habit merely overlay a different habit on top of it) in your hazard observation you need to change how you do them and when in doubt, simplify things.

I’ve written about the importance of creating an infrastructure for sustaining organizational change, but a strong infrastructure around key organizational activities can not only sustain changes but also can facilitate and even drive change.

The table below shows the key areas where a strong infrastructure is necessary for a robust safety management system.

Activity Retain Consider Changing
Hazard Management Regular hazard identification activities


Regular meetings on hazard and risk management lead by operations



Tracking of hazards from identification, through containment, and ultimate correction


“You find it you own it” philosophy

Peer-to-peer observations

Behavioral observations


Safety meetings that are thinly veiled gripe sessions filled with hidden agendas



Overly complex, fad-of-the-month, or otherwise dim-witted practices



The safety police state

Incident Investigation Incident reports at the safety meetings delivered by the appropriate first line supervisor






Complete and holistic investigations

Incident investigations conducted and reported by safety professionals.



Findings that aren’t turned into meaningful change in the workplace


Poorly executed investigations that identify and address a single “root cause”

Process Capability Integration of safety into the core process activities



Linking safety to layered process audits and continuous improvement efforts

Safety as a function that is independent from operations.
Training Core skills and regulatory training Training for training’s sake


Over emphasis on regulatory training at the expense of competency training

Safety Strategy Deployment Safety strategy as a subset of overall operations strategies Complex strategies



Employee Engagement Involvement of Front-line workers in safety improvements Ham-fisted employee reward programs


Children’s Poster contests and other patronizing safety incentives

Accountability Systems Accountability systems that appropriately hold workers at all levels responsible for worker safety Punishment for injuries

There’s a lot more that could be said about specifically what needs to change in each of these infrastructure elements, but how can I responsibly say that you need to change this or that without knowing what you are currently doing.  That having been said, if you are still operating under significant risk of hurting worker you need to change something,  and the key to change seems to be less about what you change and more about the things associated with your habits that you retain and nurture.