Safe behavior at workMarch 10, 2015
Within the world of safety management, safe behavior plays an increasingly important role. On the one hand, we realize that there is scope for improvement to use the human factor in safety. On the other hand, we see that psychology is undergoing a renaissance. Due to new insights into brain functions, we increasingly understand why people do what they do. This article deals with innovations we can embrace in strengthening safety and challenges us to abandon some long held views. A longread.
We have long held the belief that man is a conscious and rational being, whose behavior is the result of a combination of will, ability and sheer guts. The latest findings, however, raise many questions about the nature of the will and how powerful it is in determining behavior. If our will were controlling the steering wheel of our life, it would be very easy for us to change our behavior. Anyone who wants to get rid of an annoying old habit or wants to lose a few pounds in weight will soon encounter the experience of behavioral patterns usually being much stronger than our will power. On winter evenings, when we are sitting on the couch and enjoying the warmth of the stove, the beguiling attraction of a nice glass of wine easily outweighs the consequences of the morning after.
This conflict between wish and habit reminds us that we harbor within ourselves unconscious forces of which we are hardly aware. Behavior is the result of many unconscious processes. It is difficult to express the power of the unconscious in percentages, but if we could measure the proportion of the conscious part of our overall behavior, the score would be well under 1%. In other words, our behavior is largely created in an unconscious way. If we want to influence behavior, an approach via the conscious channel is by definition ineffective. So despite being able to understand and even repeat a new safety rule on a rational level, this understanding won’t change our unconscious patterns of behavior.
The possibilities for behavioral change with new insights are limited. A manager who believes that ideas lead to new behavior may be quickly driven to despair. Despite repeated explanations employees continue to linger in unsafe behaviors. His solution is usually more of the same: explain it all one more time. The fact that behavior does not change is then seen as a sign of unwillingness and for unwilling people there is only one remedy: harsh penalties. “If you do not want to hear it, then you should feel it”. Before becoming angry and starting to punish, the manager would better challenge his assumptions and analyze why a comprehensible message does not lead to changes in behavior.
Inevitably he would soon discover that behavior is composed of previously learned and stored patterns. At the moment someone decides to set on a journey safely to the center of the city, the intention acts as a stimulus that evokes a long chain of behavioral patterns. This chain is activated on an unconscious level and implemented step by step. If that chain also contains an unsafe action (the habit of driving too fast on a certain stretch of road), that specific action is not the result of the intention, but of an earlier learning experience. Safe intentions can sometimes lead to unsafe behavior.
Learn and unlearn
The question then arises what is needed if both the explanation of a safe way and assigning negative consequences to unsafe behavior, have little effect on behavior. By far the most effective way to achieve safe behavior is to ensure that safe behavioral patterns are stored in the motor part of the brain. Modern psychology teaches us that any learning experience is caused by the creation of new physical pathways between brain cells (the yellow line and the blue links on the right of the illustration). Unlearning consists of getting rid of these connections. Unfortunately it is much easier for the brain to learn than to unlearn. If we want to learn to play a music instrument, we can reinforce this learning through endless rehearsals. Practice creates skills. But if we first start to practice without a teacher and develop wrong technique, the music teacher has the greatest difficulty in helping us to get rid of these inappropriate habits.
The first blow is worth half the battle
We can achieve the greatest success in teaching safe behavior with those who do not have yet set behavioral patterns. Everybody new to the job, like interns and colleagues from other departments, are the easiest to mould. The first days, weeks and months in a new job are crucial. During this critical learning period, acquiring the right patterns takes only a fraction of the energy compared to the unlearning of undesired patterns later. This is a strong argument for an active induction period, preferably with a buddy who trains the newcomer in work processes and teaches him the safe tricks. From this perspective, we should rightly ask why safe behavior is still not included in the final objectives of secondary education.
The question arises as to what can be done when that first stroke is missed, when an undesirable behavioral pattern has been able to lodge itself in the brain. This may be due to the lack of a good induction procedure, but also of progressive insights due to which previously accepted behaviors are no longer desired. The core of the answer lies in the proposition that insights help to understand why certain behavior is desired, but that any real change of behavior can only be achieved through recurring exercises. A new insight helps in changing cognitions, but these cognitions do not have the power to change physical connections in our motor brain. The solution lies in practicing together until the new behavior has taken root and the old behavior no longer has the possibility to appear. Physical pathways in the brain that are no longer used, slowly deteriorate and disappear.
If training is not helpful, something else is going on. There is probably a sustaining factor active somewhere. In order to understand this we need to make a small journey into our human nature. Man has never been the strongest or fastest of his opponents. This deficiency was compensated by acting together and by outwitting others. In our modern society, group membership is still one of the essential conditions for success. For this reason we create cultures and subcultures in which certain behavioral patterns dominate. In order to become a member of a group, we have to acquire dominant behavioral patterns, even if these patterns are not the safest. It takes a lot of courage and self-respect to be the only one to demonstrate a safe behavioral repertoire while all the others do something different. Our unconscious instincts tell us that we cannot do this because deviations mean we drift away from the group.
But how can we change a safety culture if everybody in the group is copying the behavior of the others? To paraphrase George Orwell, some are more equal than others. As a group animal, we love to follow the behavior of the group, but some members of the group act as a stronger role model than others. The more we appreciate someone, the more we tune in our unconscious senses and copy that persons behavior patterns. This is a learning process that intrinsically rewards itself. No external compensation or reinforcement is required. Both formal and informal leaders of a group therefore set the tone when it comes to safe behavior. If they opt for a very safe behavioral repertoire, the rest will follow. Luckily an organization can choose its formal leaders and by doing that it implicitly shapes part of the safety culture. The underlying principle is simple and clear: give the most valued roles in the group to the safe ones and the others will gradually behave in a safer way.
When we study incidents and near misses, we can observe that these are often caused by an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances. Often we are faced with unique situations we are yet to encounter as such and for which we haven’t developed default behavior patterns. In such cases, the ones who quickly understand that something is likely to go wrong, have the highest chance of anticipating possible danger. The early recognition of risks unconsciously increases our readiness and thus enables us to handle the threats more effectively. A cognitive rule helps us to avoid risks, but risk recognition helps to combat that same risk.
Safe behavior naturally arises from a sense of insecurity. As long as we are able to detect risks, we don’t need rules to safeguard us. The question is what we should do to strengthen this awareness. We are all born with a well functioning safety system that is unfortunately only tailored for the dangers that were present 20,000 years ago. That is why people from all over the world are afraid of snakes and large insects. It is up to us to enable our own detection system with the actual dangers of our time. Both our education as well as our work induction ideally are directed at recognizing and handling these dangers. The anxious sensing of danger is much more effective than knowing and following a safety rule.
Is good risk detection sufficient and can we check off safety after a good induction- and learning period within a reinforcing safety environment? Unfortunately, this victory is only temporary. Human beings have a tendency to get used to all stimuli. If we encounter a danger many times we become accustomed to it and our system no longer responds as it used to. Our readiness drops slowly after each encounter. For a bus driver a critical period arrives after approximately 1.5 years, an aircraft pilot encounters it after ± 1000 flight hours and amongst rail employees this moment varies greatly from person to person. Increased skills and habituation are the principles behind the so-called bathtub curve. The curve shows us that our readiness can be reset after a near miss. The alternative is to change our complete work environment so that we can start afresh. Job rotation helps us to keep safe. Change the spice of life and we will stay hungry, change the dangers and we will stay alert.
Behavior Based versus Brain Based Safety
The above themes are – bluntly – some key elements of the recently published book “Safe work behavior due to Brain Based Safety”, published in Dutch by Syntax Media. The identical abbreviation BBS refers to a relationship with Behavior Based Safety. The biggest difference between the two is that Behavior Based is not seeking behavioral origins and just tries to change them by adding specific reinforcements. Brain Based Safety on the other hand is deeply concerned with the origins of our behavior and tries to connect the impact of our genetic programming with the effects of the current circumstances. In this way Brain Based Safety seeks to make contributions to the world of safety.