Employers that rely solely on behavioural-based safety (BBS) programs to avoid accidents and injuries may well find their effectiveness plateaus, according to safety specialists.
Workplace safety statistics, which show the rate of improvement in incident prevention is slowing, suggest that "we've reached the BBS ceiling", says DuPont Sustainable Solutions principal psychologist, Dr Rod Gutierrez.
BBS is based on the premise that individuals are motivated to act safely through fear of repercussion, rather than by "a true internal commitment to safety", he explains. It relies on positive reinforcements to increase the likelihood of safe behaviours, and negative reinforcements (punishments) to reduce unsafe behaviours.
For many years these programs have functioned well, but they have limited effectiveness, on their own, over the longer term, he says. (They are also ineffective in situations where employees work alone or unsupervised.)
A more effective approach combines BBS with other strategies, according to DuPont's business director, Fiona Murfitt.
"Behavioural-based safety is very much about external influences, but to influence safety outcomes you want to target the internal processes as well."
To do this, employers need to target cognitive elements - what employees think and feel, she says. The idea is to influence employees to choose to be safe.
"Making a choice around what I want to do, and taking responsibility for my own safety or following the rules because I want to is a very different place than 'I follow the rules because I have to'.
"If you take responsibility for yourself, and for those around you, then it's a place where you have internalised a value for safety."
Murfitt says this entails a "self-learning journey", which is about "the individual working out exactly where they are, what their value for safety is, and what their role within that is. And then it's a process of them understanding how they engage with people, and how they demonstrate that".
"Addressing these unobservable components, in collaboration with a more traditional BBS approach, can assist in ensuring workplace safety is managed to its optimum effectiveness," Gutierrez adds.
But even this isn't enough. According to Gutierrez and Murfitt, employers can't ignore the impact of social influences on employees' behaviour.
"Social influences such as an organisation's culture and the style of leadership can change an employee's thoughts, beliefs and values which, in turn, can shape their behaviour," Gutierrez says.
Murfitt adds that social norms are "very powerful" - often more so than employers recognise.
For example, it might be the case that several workers believe that it is wrong to "cut corners" with safety processes. If the message they are getting from a leader or their co-workers suggests that behaviour is fine, however, the conflict can cause the system to fail.
"That's why it needs to work in an integrated way," Murfitt says. "Behavioural-based safety is really important but if you think about all of the other factors that are going on within an organisation, if they're in any way in conflict with the individual, then that's when things don't work very well."
A safety culture must be driven from the top down, she adds.
"Leadership is fundamental. Leadership commitment is absolutely critical to success."
According to Murfitt, even the employees seemingly most resistant can be influenced to internalise safety by "felt leadership".
"If you've got the leadership commitment there, then the norm within the organisation supports and is in complete integration with the rules and the procedures and the way they operate. Even if that individual doesn't start there, the power of that social context, the power of leadership, the power of all the other things that are in place can get them to a place where they start to internalise it," she says.
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