Behavior is influenced by various things, some of which can compromise how people perform within any safety program. No matter how rigorous the safety system, human behaviors can short-circuit it. More safety rules will not prevent behavioral ups and downs, because following these additional rules would mean TEAMates would have to behave perfectly 100% of the time.
The Role of Safety Behaviors
The key to successfully upholding safety is to focus on developing and reinforcing critical safety habits and behaviors that determine how we perform. Research has shown that habits make up approximately 40% of human behavior (Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 2014). When discussing habits, people often think of their daily routine, such as brushing one’s teeth in the morning, or wearing a seat belt in the car. These daily habits also influence safety behaviors, from donning PPE at shift start-up, to keeping a work area clean and organized and free of trip hazards.
Many daily actions are driven by routine because they help maintain our awareness for issues that require active participation. This also has drawbacks; it can cause people to perform actions on autopilot when they should be paying attention. In addition, certain behaviors may be of immediate concern in the workplace. For example, moving materials on the worksite without informing others could lead to trip and fall hazards for other teammates.
It is possible to override habits by keeping a task front of mind, though doing so requires focus—and people can only concentrate on a few actions at once. Remember, multitasking doesn’t work. In a 2015 survey regarding slips, trips and falls in the workplace, 85% of respondents believe that reminding workers about safe walking and housekeeping practices improves safety performance, however most think the benefit is only temporary. Sooner or later, as teammates shift their attention elsewhere, they revert to old behaviors. This can pose a problem since our work environments are full of distractions that can derail teammate’s attention to safety.
Nearly all industries are dominated by a single factor that undeniably propels its way to the front of most teammate’s minds and shakes their concentration on safe behavior: stress. Stress manifests itself differently in everybody. For example, fatigue is a form of bodily stress and it can be difficult to stay focused when tired. In other stressful moments, such as when feeling rushed or frustrated, it is easy to revert to bad behaviors. A study by University of Southern California (2013) researchers found that in times of stress people are particularly prone to slipping back into habits that allow for bad behaviors that they are convinced will get the job done sooner. Nobody can maintain focus 100% of the time. That is where the reinforcement of good behaviors comes into play to help us through those moments.
Building New Safe Behaviors
Many people think of habits as negative (e.g., overeating, nail biting), but habits can be positive, too. For example, leaving the car keys in the same spot each evening prevents the need to search for them before heading to work the next morning. Putting on a hard hat whenever exiting a truck helps make one more likely to wear PPE even when not consciously thinking about it, thus leading to safer behaviors on the work site.
People are as likely to fall back on a positive habit as a negative one. In a safety context, improving teammate’s safe behavioral baseline will make them safer when they are most at risk. Given how much habits govern daily behavior, the key to any sustained improvement in safe behavior is to build better habits. But that will not happen overnight.
It takes an extended period of reinforcing new behavior before that behavior becomes entrenched in our actions. One of the best ways to eliminate unsafe behaviors is to replace it with safe behaviors. When a person replaces one behavior with another, the brain rewires the neural pathways that make up the old behavior, literally mapping one behavior on top of another (Duhigg, 2012).
Negative communications, from injury-based scare tactics to old-school yelling, might correct behavior in the moment, but the effect will wear off well before a new behavior is formed. Positive thinking has been proven to increase people’s ability to build personal skills (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, et al., 2008); and supervisors who take an approach based on encouragement and reinforcement of safe behaviors will likely promote better safe behavior development.
Many safety efforts revolve around the central need to protect workers by controlling exposure to hazards. However, while entire industries exist to help companies install barriers that physically prevent employees from coming into contact with machinery, relatively little focus is placed on properly adjusting the wide range of potentially unsafe behaviors that workers bring with them to the workplace each day. Sunland’s Behavior Based Safety approach to Safety and Risk Management will help remedy that.
Sunland’s Next Steps
Research on habits and behaviors continues to evolve, and studies continue to confirm that one must work on habits to change behavior. Whatever behavior is of concern—from teammates forgetting to wear PPE to back strains due to improper lifting techniques— reinforcing safe behaviors is a viable part of the solution. Everyone has the basic skills to put on a hard hat or bend at the knees when lifting. What is missing is the overall encouragement of the safe behaviors that help teammates engage in these behaviors on a consistent basis.
Building better behaviors is easier said than done, especially given the length of time it takes for a new behavior to become habitual. It can take patience and work, from all involved, but the effort is well worth it. Providing the tools to form safe behaviors, including ample time to work on them, as well as frequent observations to analyze progress, will help our teammates stay on track and help us move to THE NEXT LEVEL – THE SUNLAND WAY. Also, because a consciously positive approach plays a major role in the process, everyone must provide positive reinforcement for good behavior rather than punishing workers for behavioral slips.
Motivation also helps teammates increase their safe behaviors; it offers them the “why” behind investing time to build the behaviors in the first place. If teammates think their behavior is safe enough, they may question the need to improve their habits. One the most effective motivation tools stems from Teammates’ lives outside of work. Connecting how more safe behaviors could benefit family life, personal activities, hobbies or recreational sports, will show our teammates that the overall AFPG goal is to not only work safe, but also to be able to do the things we love to do with our loved ones.
For more information on Sunland’s Safety & Risk Management First Culture please visit https://www.sunlandfire.com/safety-first-culture.