Safety and human behaviour

Sunday, 14 August, 2005

When an employee is injured, is it due to unsafe conditions or an unsafe act? The answer seems to split OHS professionals neatly into two camps but companies such as Pilz Safe Automation believe there is room for both.

Behaviour-based safety (BBS) proponents cite a DuPont study suggesting that up to 96 per cent of incidents are caused by unsafe acts. On the other hand, Australian statistics from the NOHSC suggest that more than 90 per cent of fatalities and injuries involving machinery and fixed plant are due, at least in part, to design. How can both be true?

Automation safety specialist, Pilz believes both design and behaviour play a role in OHS because any safety system must deal with two fundamental truths:

  • Every human being makes mistakes every day; and
  • It is impossible to eliminate all risks.

When a safety culture ignores either of these, it is only a matter of time until people are hurt. According to many unions, bias towards the human element in identifying the cause of an incident is the hub of the problem with the rapid adoption of behaviour-based safety.

What BBS means

While the execution of behaviour-based safety programs may vary, most are based on a few common principles:

  • Workforce participation in the safety system
  • Targets 'unsafe behaviours'
  • Interventions based on observational data collection
  • Feedback encourages workers to decrease 'unsafe acts'

In short, BBS assumes that almost all injuries are caused by unsafe acts. By monitoring the workplace, BBS proponents aim to uncover those unsafe acts. How the information is used varies from workplace to workplace but often rewards and punishments are used in an attempt to change worker behaviour.

The benefits

The principles of BBS appeal to many employers as 'common sense' and Pilz Safe Automation believes there are three main benefits of this approach such as:

Encourages data collection
BBS is nothing if not data driven. The performance of the safety system is continually monitored and changes provide an early warning mechanism for management.

A systematic approach to safety
Work processes are rigorously examined for hazardous situations, ideally by staff who understand operations intimately and who are trained to recognise risk. This can be used equally effectively to identity both unsafe acts and assess risk from unsafe design.

Encourages a focus on developing a safety culture
'Safety is everybody's business' is a common slogan in workplaces implementing BBS. The emphasis is on the participation of all staff in the development and management of the safety system.

How it can go wrong

Being so focused on human behaviour, it is not surprising that BBS suffers if not supported by a suitable workplace culture.

Authoritarian management style
When the workforce is not involved in the design and continuous improvement of the safety system, measures may not fit with the reality of the company's operations and the close observation associated with BBS can have a 'big brother' effect.

Insufficient training
Done well, BBS is very intensive and rigorous. If staff members are not well trained, it can also degenerate into the nomination of pet hates as 'unsafe acts'. This not only creates a source of friction but also distracts the company from the real issues affecting safety.

Poor planning
BBS cannot be implemented overnight. Everyone needs to be trained, new structures need to be put in place to facilitate consultation, staff members require training and work processes must be carefully examined. Taking short cuts at any stage will compromise the entire program.

Traps for the unwary

Behaviour-based safety is complex and the stakes are high. Get it wrong and both morale and workplace safety will be undermined.

Can shift blame to workers
Nobody ever wants to get hurt. In many cases workers are injured trying to avoid delays to production or in a moment of lapsed concentration interacting with a dangerous machine where safe design has not been implemented.

Because BBS focuses on 'unsafe acts' rather than 'unsafe conditions', there is the temptation to suggest that the worker was at fault rather than the system. Unions around the world have vocally opposed BBS for this reason.

Don't lose sight of eliminating hazards
Just as the focus on behaviour rather than conditions can lead to a culture of blaming the worker, it can also shift energies away from eliminating hazards.

Just as nobody wants to get hurt, nobody is perfect either. While it is true that many incidents are avoidable, workers should not be expected to compensate for hazardous conditions by adapting their behaviour when the risk could be removed or decreased by design.

Unfortunately, many administrative controls mandated by the BBS approach are time consuming and, when the pressure is on, the first safety measures to be short-circuited.

Don't limit BBS to the behaviour of line workers
Because line workers have the most interaction with machinery, their behaviours are naturally priorities for scrutiny under BBS. Unfortunately, this can give the impression that the primary responsibility for safety lies with line workers.

Nothing could be further from the truth because only management can set working conditions and these can have a major impact on behaviour. Long hours lead to fatigue, production pressures encourage risk taking and the defeat of poorly designed safety systems. Machine maintenance is also a critical factor in injuries that may be beyond workers' control and demands safe design thinking.

Second, the danger to non-line personnel should not be overlooked. Office environments have their own hazards and even administrative staff members venture into production zones from time to time.

Lies, damned lies and statistics - the art of manipulating numbers
BBS involves feedback to promote safe behaviour and discourage unsafe acts. This often translates to a system of rewards and punishments. To avoid discipline or to get rewards, people can be tempted to manipulate the system to avoid punishment or get rewards. In practice, that means not reporting incidents, which compromises the entire safety system.

Rewards that fail to be incentives
Encouraging safe behaviour with a reward or 'positive reinforcement' is not easy. The reward may just not be desirable to each worker, or it might be given out to the whole team irrespective of individual behaviours or it might simply come too late.

To be effective, rewards must be closely linked with the desired behaviour, and to be lasting, the rewards need to keep coming for as long as the behaviour is expected. Unfortunately, most rewards eventually stop being incentives (how many mugs, caps and key rings does anybody need, after all?).

The effectiveness of punishments decreases over time
Safety professionals seem split on whether punishment is a suitable feedback mechanism. Psychologists warn, however, that punishment becomes less effective over time. Punishments can also have a very damaging effect on morale and are likely to see failures hidden rather than dealt with constructively.

BBS and the hierarchy of control

Many companies such as Pilz believe that BBS does have a place in the hierarchy of controls embraced by safety professionals but that it should swing into action only after all other avenues of hazard reduction have been exhausted.

Australia's peak safety body, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC), drafted the well-accepted hierarchy of control, now enshrined in legislation, that places the elimination of hazards at its peak.

It is an approach that intuitively makes sense. If you can rid the workplace of the hazard altogether, there is no need to worry about 'unsafe acts'. Of course, most hazards cannot be eliminated, so the NOHSC suggests that substitution for a lesser hazard is next on the list.

If these two steps are not viable, then engineering solutions like guarding are appropriate. Fortunately, guarding, interlocking and safety control systems are becoming ever more effective, to the point where hazards are almost eliminated.

Electronic safety systems have made guarding both less intrusive and less easily defeated. In the event of the deliberate or accidental disablement of a guard, safety device or associated wiring, the worker is protected by an automated shutdown of machinery.

Logic controlled safety guarding not only adds a new level of protection - its flexibility allows it to extend to areas that were once only the domain of administrative controls.

So where does that leave behaviour-based safety? The truth is that plenty of hazards remain that cannot be controlled or eliminated and rules, education and training will always have a role to play in OHS. That's why administration and personal protective equipment continues to have a place at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls.

Perhaps, though, the main contributions that behaviour-based safety can make are in developing a culture that values safety; driving team-based risk assessment and control through correct safe design; and commitment to making itself accountable for results.

The safety profession has been making ground over recent years as an important business discipline but remains second best to production and accounting empires. Behaviour-based safety, with its emphasis on reporting and objective measures, might just be the tool that brings safety from the factory floor to the boardroom, so long as the safety profession can ride the tiger without falling off.

Pilz Australia Industrial
PO Box 739, Mount Waverley 3149

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