The road towards maximum workplace safety needn’t be a slippery slope. Charles Shoesmith explains why you should
get a grip on reducing the risks
Workplace accidents happen because people take unnecessary risks. However,
they do this because there are favourable consequences associated with taking
these risks, which typically involve practical benefits such as saving time and
avoiding inconvenience. There may be a ‘macho’ element to the risk-taking,
boosting the individual’s perception of their gutsiness or status, perhaps. But
it is important to understand that the perceived, attractive benefits of taking
the risk are real to the individual and easily outweigh the benefits of being
To reduce the likelihood of these risks being taken, we must focus on the
consequences associated with the unnecessary risk, and present them in a way
that makes the safe alternative become the more appealing proposition.
Extensive research by the health and safety sector has proven beyond doubt that
a clear correlation exists between safety initiatives and the actual reduction
in accidents. These initiatives should set out to achieve all of the following
– Continuous improvements in workplace safety
– Avoidance of a sense of complacency at all costs
– Keeping the need for maximum safety at the forefront of people’s minds
These objectives are easily stated, but in practice are not so easily
carried out. Fundamentally, humans have evolved as problem-solvers, toolmakers
and fighters, who are at their best when dealing with real, tangible
Workers on an oil rig, for example, will be adept at working towards the
common goal of locating oil, drilling for it and piping it to people who need
it. This is a fascinating, tangible challenge and oil workers are renowned for
their skill at delivering the goods. Nobody working on an oil rig needs to be
reminded of how important the process of harvesting oil is for themselves and
Oil rigs are extremely dangerous places and, ideally, part of the
professionalism of any rig worker will be continuous awareness of safety
measures that maximise safety on the rig.
But in occupations where the dangers are not so obvious, accident prevention
is a much more intangible issue – at least until an accident occurs. And far
from being seen as fascinating, safety measures are regarded by many employees
as being somewhat uninspiring compared to other work issues, no matter how
necessary those measures are.
Behavioural theory suggests people will only produce continual desired
behaviours if they want to behave in that way. A basic point, obviously, but
its implications for maximising safety in the workplace are critical.
The principal factor is that you need to give good, solid reasons for
behaving safely at work in a continual way that is essential to achieve
workplace safety goals.
This means that traditional methods of improving safety at work –
observation of an unsafe act by a manager or colleague, followed by coaching
the employee who committed the unsafe act – are limited in their effectiveness.
In practice, this approach is unlikely to succeed in bringing about the
sustained behavioural change really needed. Coaching rarely sparks a permanent
change in the employee’s behaviour because it doesn’t address a crucial issue:
the need to focus on behavioural and motivational factors at stake in
maximising workplace safety.
The first step is to try and remove as many negative consequences associated
with the safe alternative as possible. At a practical level, this means
ensuring the safe behaviour measures are feasible and easy to carry out.
The second step is to focus on giving people additional incentives to choose
the safe alternative.
In practice, this means providing what is known as ‘extrinsic reinforcement’
– making something available which people value, as a reward for carrying out
the safe behaviour. Extrinsic reinforcement is extremely useful for tipping the
balance away from taking the risk.
Experience shows that the most effective kind is ‘positive reinforcement’ –
using a positive approach to motivate people to develop behavioural habits
which will maximise safety. Positive reinforcement can create a collaborative,
team effort devoted to maximising workplace safety, inevitably creating high
levels of morale.
Positive reinforcement also elicits a performance better than the minimum
required for compliance with safety needs. People are literally positively
motivated to produce what is known as ‘discretionary performance’ – the extra
level of performance they want to produce. Time and time again, the use of
positive reinforcement in the workplace does indeed yield discretionary
To be most effective, positive reinforcement should not be implemented in
tactical isolation, but as part of a clear strategy directed at maximising
workplace safety. Furthermore, the emphasis should be targeted in as much as
the focus needs to be on changing behaviours associated with specific incidents.
The strategy therefore becomes one where people are positively reinforced for
choosing safe behaviour where they would previously have tended to take an
So, what kind of specific positive reinforcements should be used? The most
effective involve some form of ‘social reinforcement’ – which is simply
recognition given to an individual by a valued peer or manager when they carry
out the safe behaviour.
Social reinforcement also occurs in situations where an enjoyable time is
associated with some achievement – celebrations are good examples of such
reinforcement, with the emphasis upon providing mutual ‘pats on the back’ and a
sense of joint accomplishment.
Practical experience of implementing positive reinforcement to create
continuous behaviour shows that delivery must be planned, systematic and
applied in four ways.
The first level of application focuses upon individual achievement, and
occurs at the point at which people carry out the safe behaviour in question.
This presents an opportunity for observing a person doing the right thing, and
openly recognising this through a positive comment.
The important thing is that such recognition can be delivered by anyone –
peers, supervisors or managers. For those making the effort to change, this
recognition can be a very powerful form of encouragement.
The second level focuses on group achievement, and involves setting up a
framework which enables all members of the team or work group to be recognised
for progress made during a given period in which the increased incidence of
critical safe behaviours is measured.
Level three is where the entire work group celebrates the achievement of key
milestones – such as fully adopting a safe habit – by taking part in a social
function, such as a celebratory dinner, outing or any other valued activity,
funded by the organisation.
The final level is where this celebrating is enjoyed not only by members of
the team or work group, but by all members of the organisation. Such a
celebration might occur, for example, in response to the collective achievement
of a number of critical safe behaviours. Once again, the safety achievement
should be marked by a memorable social event.
Providing positive reinforcement in this way can be enormously effective.
The social element of the reinforcement is also mutually self-reinforcing, as
individuals quickly reach a point where they are keen not to let their
colleagues down. Furthermore, with the mundane element that is present in most
types of work, the appeal of the respite a social celebration can provide is
Quite apart from anything else, it lets people see that maximising safety
can be associated with events that are a fun, welcome break from the usual
Overall, the aim of this approach is to create a new pattern of learned
behaviour, or a habit. Once the habit is established, the extrinsic
reinforcement can be faded out, because the safe behaviour is now driven by the
Habits established across the workforce eventually create cultural definition
– this is ‘the way we behave around here’ – with respect to safety. As such, it
provides a powerful behavioural guide for newcomers and visitors.
Ideally, to maximise the success of positive reinforcement as a way of
permanently changing behavioural habits in a desired direction, the
organisation needs to equip itself with all of the following:
– A comprehensive and practical understanding of what influences the choice
of safe and unsafe behaviours, to aid the design of future work practices
– A method of analysing present behaviour to understand current risk-taking
patterns and inspire intervention strategies
– An outline of the key elements required to change unsafe behaviours as the
basis for the design of a ‘change programme’
– A focus on other behaviours which are important for supporting the safety
initiative – for example, effectively targeting management action
– A behavioural emphasis when addressing issues to do with promoting a
positive safety climate to increase voluntary effort
– An understanding of how to optimise the transfer of learning from the
training room to the work site, to maximise the effectiveness of training and
As long as positive reinforcement is used to encourage good habits for
maximising safety, the goal of 100 per cent safety is a perfectly reasonable
Of course, there will be times when the application of negative consequences
will be appropriate. But the overall issue is one of balance, and research
shows that the emphasis needs to be focused on the delivery of positive
reinforcement if long-lasting behavioural change is to occur.
Safety happens in the vast majority of cases because people remember the
need to take small but significant actions to improve safety, and want to take
These actions really matter, because all kinds of safety – from that
involved with climbing a mountain, to flying a passenger airliner or keeping a
workplace safe – are invariably a matter of paying attention to detail.
Maximising workplace safety depends on doing the simple things well.
An enormous improvement in safety can be obtained if people remember to do
everyday things safely, such as holding the handrail when walking down steep
steps, or looking where they are going. It is the neglect of such behaviours
that are associated with the vast majority of accidents.
Safety is always a matter of remembering and wanting to carry out all the
right small actions that maximise safety, and carrying them out so often that
they become a habit. Management of positive reinforcement is the best way to
influence people’s choice of behaviour to lead to these safe habits.