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Is Your Company Safe by Accident: Developing a Behavior-Based Safety Approach
Book review of Safe by Accident, identifies seven safety practices that are a waste of time and money.

By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 9/6/2011

Almost every week, at least one company in the forest products industry is cited for safety violations and fined large sums for exposing employees to some workplace danger. If your company has not been one of them, is it because of safety precautions that actually work or have you only been safe by accident. According to the authors of a new occupational safety book, going a month, a year, or even several years without an incident is more likely a function of sheer luck than a predictor of a safe organization.

Safe by Accident? was written by behavioral safety experts Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels to help companies understand how an in-depth knowledge of the science of behavior is more effective at creating a company-wide commitment to safety.

This book steers away from phrases such as “making safety a priority” or “creating a safety culture,” which it says are vague and have little meaning. Instead, the authors focus on the understanding of how the actions of leadership, even those intended to produce safe behavior, can lead to workers taking safety shortcuts. In the book, which is written for managers, supervisors and other senior leaders, the authors explain how behavior-based safety (BBS), which is based on behavior analysis, can be used by company leaders to bring positive changes in behavior that promote safety in the workplace.

The basic idea behind Safe by Accident? is helping company leaders identify so-called safety practices that do not contribute to a safer workplace and understand how utilizing BBS principles can achieve safety goals. According to the authors, behavior analysis, which is the scientific study

of behavior, helps you understand decision making, choice, and the effects of performance on results.

“It helps you understand the thoughts and feelings that can interfere with making safety the top priority when demands of the business are screaming for attention,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

The authors advise using primarily positive reinforcement to drive behavior change in safety, a term that is commonly heard in regards to safety leadership. However, according to Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels, positive reinforcement, though often talked about in safety, is not understood very well. Rather than defining it as words of affirmation or financial bonuses, they define positive reinforcement as any consequence that follows a behavior that increases that behavior’s frequency. In contrast, negative reinforcement increases the rate of behavior designed to avoid punishment or penalty. Though both result in more safe behavior, the authors point out that with negative reinforcement there is no personal benefit to go beyond the minimum once the penalty has been avoided. This causes negative reinforcement to lead to sub-optimal performance.

Negative reinforcement is always the default approach to safety in the absence of purposeful positive reinforcement, the book cautions. “If you are not actively seeking safe behavior to positively reinforce or trying to find ways to build positive reinforcement into processes, procedures, and policies, you are getting performance by negative reinforcement, like it or not.” Natural re-inforcers, such as seeing the immediate effects of one’s action and tracking progress on tasks and projects, should be built into work processes to strengthen employees’ safe behavior as well as increase production, quality, and cost efficiencies.

The authors also make the insightful point that positive reinforcement can serve to reinforce dangerous behavior. One example given in the book that could apply quite easily to the pallet industry is supervisors that praise workers for high productivity, or meeting a deadline, without checking to ensure that the workers did not take any safety shortcuts to complete the work. For this reason, models that can be used to evaluate the actual impact of different reinforcements and consequences are also discussed.

Wasteful Safety Practices

One of the most helpful aspects of the book is the list of seven commonly used safety practices that actually waste time and money rather than helping promote safe behaviors.

“Too few resources are available to do anything in safety that is not optimally effective. Yet, many organizations waste time and money on safety practices that not only do not lead to optimal results, but actually work against safety,” the authors wrote.

These practices are:

1. Focusing on lagging indicators: Many company management teams measure safety using lagging indicators, or after-the-fact measurements, such as incident and time lost rates. This puts the focus on the results, resulting in the company concentrating on fixing problems instead of preventing them. The alternative is focusing on the actual actions of people to manage their actions.

2. Using injury-based incentive programs: The biggest problem with incentives based on the avoidance of injuries is the under-reporting of accidents. The authors advise avoiding incentive programs, especially injury based ones, and replacing them with a reinforcement system which may have some tangible rewards, but only as a small part of the entire system.

3. Awareness training: Because awareness training does little to affect consequences of unsafe actions, at best, it results in a temporary change in behavior and a gradual return to the old habits. Before turning to training to correct a safety issue, the authors suggest determining whether training is needed. If an employee knows how to perform the safe actions but does not, training is not needed. Proper motivation is the critical element needed to make the workplace safe.

4. Using safety signs: Though safety signs are required by law, the authors point out that their affect on behavior is usually little or only a short-term impact and that they do not guarantee that workers will engage in the target behavior. Also, the more signs there are, the less likely it is that they will actually be read. Rather than overloading the workplace with signs, the authors recommend using only compliance signs that direct specific behavior and informational signs only when appropriate and relevant.

5. Punishing mistakes: Though discipline is an important part of safety programs, companies frequently have trouble determining under what circumstances it should be used. Because multiple factors can contribute to a mistake, punishing a worker for one safety mistake may not actually address the real issue that caused a problem and can have multiple unintended side effects. The most problematic side effect of punishment is having the reporting of accidents and near misses suppressed out of fear of punishment.

6. Misunderstanding near misses: Important information about training, supervisions and teamwork can be gleaned from near misses. However, instead of using the experience to learn how to prevent a similar problem from happening in the future, many companies fire or punish workers. The upshot is that the reporting of near misses decreases. When a near miss occurs, managers should carefully analyze the details of what happened and correct the problem.

7. Thinking that checklists change behavior: The authors freely acknowledge the value of checklists in preventing unsafe behavior. However, because checklists in and of themselves do not produce any consequences, they do not influence behavior change. For this reason, they advise pairing the use of checklists with positive reinforcement so that they produce long-lasting changes in behavior.

Safe by Accident? is a good resource for any company that is looking to increase the safe behavior of its workers and eliminate ineffective safety practices. Not only is it full of useful information, but it uses simple examples that any supervisor can understand to illustrate the principles it teaches. Because it explains the basic idea behind behavior-based safety in a way that is easy to understand, it can be used by anyone in a supervisory position that is looking for ways to influence a safer work environment, even if they have no training in the behavioral science field. Any company that is looking to increase the safe behavior of its workers and eliminate ineffective safety practices would find this book useful in reaching those goals.

Top Quotes from Safe by Accident?

“Organizations that fail to take a scientific approach to safety’s human-behavior element are gambling with their futures and are ultimately only safe by accident,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

“Those who focus on getting rid of undesired behavior often find the undesired behavior is replaced with more undesired behavior. It is better to pinpoint behaviors that lead to optimal safety results and use positive reinforcement to ensure they occur,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

“This do-it-or-else style of managing safety leads to employees behaving safely because they have to; attending safety meetings because they have to; reporting near misses because they have to, and barely meeting the safety goals. This is certainly not by design, but because those in charge of these systems don’t have an in-depth understanding of behavioral consequences. They use techniques, processes, and behaviors that unintentionally create a negatively reinforcing safety climate,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

“In the final analysis, rules are learned and maintained by consequences. Employees will come to either follow safety rules or ignore them depending on the consistency with which consequences (positive or negative) are experienced,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

“There are always more ways to do something unsafely than safely. Therefore, without positive reinforcement for a safe alternative, the probability that punishing one unsafe act will lead to it being replaced by another unsafe act is relatively high. While it is possible to reduce unsafe acts with punishment, it usually creates only temporary benefits, which in the long run, aren’t that beneficial,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

“Like safety training, compliance signs are a necessary but not sufficient part of any safety system. They are necessary because they clearly communicate important information (not to mention that OSHA requires them) but they are not sufficient in that posting such signs does not guarantee that employees will engage in the target behaviors,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

“We must sensitize employees to observe deviations in their own behavior and that of other employees. If you are a perfect employee and you notice that you tend to skip a step in a procedure, you would be quick to notify someone to observe your behavior, analyze the problem, and take actions to help you eliminate the tendency,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

“To think that there comes a clear, uncontested point at which everybody says, ‘Yes, now the line has been crossed; this is negligence,’ is probably an illusion.” - Sidney Dekker, professor of human factors and system safety at Lund University, Sweden

“While a checklist adds value to almost any process, the real value is determined by what happens to the behaviors surrounding actions required by the checklist,” wrote Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels.

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