Accidents happen invariably because people take risks. These risks either directly or indirectly cause the accident, along with other conditions present, setting up a domino effect. But, it isn’t just foreseeable OHS risks which are taken. Many of the risks taken have an indirect effect on the accident-but set up the environment for the accident all the same.
What are normally associated as ‘conditions’ supporting the ‘acts’ are themselves caused by indirect behaviours to the incident. For instance, an Engineer designs a piece of plant, its risks are assessed, and controls are included in design. But, without consultation with those who will operate, clean and maintain the equipment, these controls may be useless, and may actually introduce other, unforeseeable hazards.
What is being suggested here is that although many accidents and incidents causes are broken into acts and conditions, the one common attribution to both types of causes is behaviour-behaviour at all levels of the corporation.
Organisations must begin to acknowledge this risk-taking behaviour, which can occur at all levels, potentially affects their safety performance on a daily basis. Although it is common, especially in today’s globally competitive environment, for enterprises to have as a strategic objective to take risks, risks of an OHS variety must be separated and removed from the work setting.
Understanding what directs and motivates behaviour
Behaviour does not happen in a vacuum-the ‘context’ both supports and explains any behaviour exhibited. Although some managers will harp on the salient individual behavioural causes to accidents, it is not until we dig deeper and ask ‘why did the behaviour occur’ that we often find this cultural context providing clues and indeed answers.
This can be done simply by employing an analytical tool like ABC (Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequences) Analysis. ABC Analysis is used to identify and therefore understand the antecedents and consequences for the behaviour in question. Antecedents (activators) direct behaviour, and are usually in the form of rules, procedures, safety signs etc. Consequences motivate behaviour; this is considered the most powerful determinant of behaviour.
A simple example illustrates its use. If a safety sign directs for use of hearing protection, but there are no negative consequences for not wearing hearing protection ie. there is a lack of enforcement, then chances are it won’t be worn. This is due to the positive consequences of not wearing them out-weighing the negative ie. ‘it saves me time not wearing them’ or ‘they’re uncomfortable’.
Analysing further, consequences are most powerful when they are happen soon, are certain to happen, and are either very positive or very negative.
ABC Analysis in accident investigation
The use of ABC Analysis in determining the causes of behaviour contributing to accidents is a relatively new concept. But, the findings from this method can shed entirely different light on the outcome of the investigation.
Whereas in the past this process has been seen as a way of apportioning blame and looking at the individual’s behaviour in isolation, we are now starting to find that the behaviour in question may well have been ‘the’ typical response, and the core of the failure lies deeper within the management system itself-the culture of the organisation no less.
Attribution for contributory behaviour is critical information in investigating an incident, at least where the correct preventive actions are sought.
A U.S. NIOSH commissioned study into critical success factors for behaviour-based safety in 1996 however showed that, although 80 percent of respondents saw behavioural safety approaches reducing at-risk behaviour, only 26 percent of respondents saw it as useful in investigating injuries.
Clearly then, there is a need for advisory and regulatory players to acknowledge and actively promote this rationale within industry. The output should be for the establishment of standards, guidance notes or codes of practice, which would influence the management systems at the corporate level.
Corporate acceptance of behaviour as an indicator of management system effectiveness
A factor which needs to be manifested in modern day management to achieve this is the acceptance of humility as a corporate and strategic value-from a human resource management (HRM) perspective.
The lack of corporate humility has contributed as much to building OHS performance-related barriers as has the influence of any other industrial relations party or technique.
But, for the CEO of the modern day enterprise to accept and strive for these values, will involve risks to the corporation. In demonstrating corporate humility, the enterprise will open itself up to admissions of possible regulatory ‘gaps’ which present not only moral, but also potential legal problems. It may include a shift in focus, involving for a time, possibly less focus on the customer. There will almost certainly be credibility issues with its own people; management are challenging and changing their own paradigm of operation, after all.
Without taking such risks however, the fruits of success in terms of true culture change will be severely limited. To effect this change wholly, employees need to see some fervent conviction on the part of management.
Moreover, once the shift has been achieved, how is it to be maintained? One must surmise that to continue this high level of OHS performance, one would need to set up seamless monitoring regimes to remain aware at the corporate level, doing so in a transparent way, so that employees ‘see’ management of culture as being a personable system.
So, in theory the concept of this form of culture change is very hard to implement and sustain. Management would be wise to include this vision of adversity in planning from the outset.
Using known psychological phenomenon to enhance OHS culture change
Promotion of certain psychological phenomenon can be employed to raise awareness of our human nature-especially when seeking positive OHS culture change. The concepts of the self-serving bias, cognitive dissonance and social influence, as well as some basic theory and discussion on the differences between attitudes and behaviours will be beneficial theories to teach employees.
Learning theory is also important to promote so that employees can see how behaviours are learned, how habits form, and more importantly how hard it is to ‘un-learn’ some behaviours.
Promoting an ‘actively-caring’ mentality as is also important as it cuts to the core of how we can ‘care for each other’, whilst achieving many other positive spin-offs, with a truly interdependent work culture.
Management can also use these principles to set up an interdependent work environment. Employees at all levels can work cooperatively together with other departments and other classes of employees to achieve superordinate goals.
The ultimate point here is strategic OHS corporate plans need to be established, which are well defined and communicated, place emphasis on cooperation, and show a definite OHS strategy. The behaviour of those driving the plan must also, obviously, be congruent with plan itself.
Concentrate on process rather than outcome
Too often corporations focus on lost time injury (LTI) frequency and medical treatment rates instead of putting their efforts into what they can control-what happens at the process end. This is a trap, most often initiated by focus on insurance premiums and misplaced corporate pride.
Focusing on ‘process’ or up stream measures means monitoring the effectiveness of systems and the behaviour of people. The statistical relationship of outcome measures like LTIs will be cyclic unless there is a preventive culture where the work happens to reduce the OHS risks on a minute-by-minute basis. Besides, the normal everyday employee has even less effect on LTIs than management does, and therefore they are much more likely to want to work positively in reducing their own chances of injury.
An indicator of a preventive culture would appear to be active reporting of near-misses. The study by Frank Bird in 1969 found that for every serious or major injury, there will be 600 incidents without damage or injury. At least by comparison, good reporting performance might be considered if a ratio 60 near-misses were reported for every serious or major injury. But, even this level of reporting is atypical in many modern organisations. This is yet further evidence of the lack of emphasis management typically place on learning before damage is done-lack of corporate humility again.
Capturing near-misses by observation to reduce risk of accidents
One way of capturing these ‘near-misses’ is through the implementation of a peer safety observation system, which is the cornerstone of the behaviour-based approach to safety management.
An argument here is why would you do this; employees will only work safely when being observed and revert back to bad habits later. But, this is the point isn’t it! If an employee is observed regularly, say weekly, he or she will work as safely as they can to avoid being exposed to negative feedback. Failure is a strong negative consequence.
To have a capable system which captures loss exposures on a daily basis requires buy-in from employees. The employees need to know it is an activity management values. It is most appropriate for employees to drive this themselves because the employees know more intimately the type and frequency of risks taken.
Knowing the problems very well, will with good facilitation, assist in developing the best, most cost effective solutions, eliminating the at-risk behaviour.
Reducing accidents by removing barriers to behaving safely
A fundamental step in improving OHS is removing the barriers to behaving safely. In other words, a key measure in the effectiveness of a behavioural approach to safety is its ability in removing barriers. BST (Behavioural Science Technology) suggest there are eight generic barriers which must be recognised and catered for. These are:
1. Hazard recognition and response
2. Business systems
3. Rewards and recognition
4. Facility and equipment
5. Disagreement on safe practices
6. Personal factors
8. Personal choice
Corporations would do well to take these barriers into account, by conducting a thorough analysis of the issues, when designing their safety systems.
Conclusion – what to do?
Accidents happen primarily because of the direct or indirect behaviour of people. The behaviour is a salient indicator of the efficacy of the management system to produce an acceptable level of OHS performance.
Those implementing behavioural safety systems don’t appear, in the main, to be heeding all the advice of experts. At the root of the problem is a lack of corporate humility; in this case the ability to acknowledge others may know better and to keep an open corporate mind. The responsibility for this rests with the CEO.
The ongoing failure of industry to recognise people behave at-risk because of the context in which they are placed, is a major concern. Clearly there is a role for regulators and advisory institutions to become involved by developing standards, guidance notes and codes of practice to promote tools like ABC Analysis, and facilitate maturation of culture.
Again, the amount of pure involvement at shop-floor employee level is another indicator of OHS performance. Consultation is mandated in the OHS legislation, but it is far from delivered consistently in workplaces today-at least the way behaviour-based safety approaches suggest.
To coin a cliché, the definition of insanity is expecting vastly different results to come from doing things the same way as they’ve always been done. Yet, one feels this cliché is reality for many organisations today as far as OHS management is concerned.
Copyright © 2001, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved.