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Health and Safety Management – A Behavioral Approach

March 8, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Health and Safety

Health and Safety Management – A Behavioral Approach

For a lifetime, philosophers and more recently psychologists and psychiatrists have sought the basic reasons why different people react the way they do. What is the key to predict how a given human being will act in a particular situation and especially one in which risk of some kind is involved? More specifically as it relates to the risk of harm to people, if we think we have created a safe situation or a safe environment, how can we be relatively certain that the people involved will act in a predictably safe way?

Safety policies and practices have evolved through a number of different phases since the health of workers first was seriously perceived as an important issue (essentially in the industrial revolution of the 1800’s). The first phase of this concern consisted of concentrating on workplace conditions, where people were often working in quite appalling and unsafe conditions. Then it was realized that people made mistakes, no matter what the conditions, so the next phase focused on raising people’s knowledge and awareness of the part they played in their own safety. Coming closer to the modern day, the focus then shifted to environmental hazards such as pollution of the work environment by harmful agents -dust, asbestos, chemicals, noise, undue stress. Finally, it can argued that today we see an integration of all these approaches into what is often called a “Total Safety” approach. This means that modern health and safety management efforts must fight many battles on many fronts simultaneously.

In the past unsafe acts were seen as mainly due to ignorance or carelessness or stupidity. Today, we see them as due in part to the environment, or climate surrounding the individual in the workplace, and due in part to what goes on inside the person’s head. We know from research that the largest influence on the safety climate is the actions of management and team leaders, and the support they are seen to give to their people in doing their work, and in doing their work safely. We also know from research, and from lessons learned by the Quality movement, that 85% of mistakes are caused by the system rather than by the people using the system. Most of these systems are again under management control. And one of the prime systems which come into play in good safety practice is the learning or knowledge or awareness-raising system, perceptions. People do not deliberately go to work to make mistakes and do a bad job, or threaten their own lives – that they do so is mainly due to ways in which the systems have let them down. This is not to absolve people from taking personal responsibility for their actions. In particular they need to take responsibility for their own learning, and for feedback to the organization if one or another systems is not working. And people who are well trained and well prepared and well-supported and with good tools and equipment, do make mistakes from time to time.

Over the last three decades, the social psychologist Albert Bandura, has provided some of the most promising leads and insights concerning human attitudes and behavior. He sees a person’s behavior as interacting with two other elements. The strength and direction of this interaction in large part provides us with clues as to how the person is likely to behave. And Bandura provides us with a number of tools to help us measure the strength and direction of the interaction between the three elements. The elements comprise three elements as shown in the table below:

the person  The person brings into any situation their values, beliefs, expectations, habits of interpreting, habits of self-talk, past experience, motives and traits, skills and abilities, personal goals and aspirations.Through all of these components, signals from the environment are processed and interpreted. And different people process the same signals in different ways because of the differences reflected in each component.
the environment  The environment contains external (others’) goals, opportunities to participate, signs and cues for action, examples to follow, instructions, others’ influence, authority, leadership, job set-ups and layout, work organization, work systems and processes, and most importantly, indicators of consequences of actions. Some of these indicators are of success or failure to achieve a goal. Others are things like rewards or punishments, other kinds of feedback such as someone paying attention or recognition, or lack of attention or recognition.
the behavior  Behavior can consist of movement and action, things said, degrees of effort and persistence, direction taken. And taken a little further, behavior can stretch to what we do internally, so that what we say to ourselves, our own thoughts and feelings, can be seen as behavior of a kind. All of these components of behavior are able to be changed, at least potentially, although in some cases with a great degree of difficulty.

Put simply, we can use this model, of interaction between the person, the environment and the person’s behavior, to examine and develop a number of interventions to change behavior towards various aspects of their safety and hence make health and safety management a much more targeted approach.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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