Are Habits Bad for Safety?

The debate about whether developing habits should be a goal in safety has been going on for decades. A recent article in Professional Safety (Making Safety a Mindful Value, Not a Mindless Habit, June 2023) raised the debate yet again. At ADI, we have been talking about the importance of habits in safety for 30 years (in fact we have a new book coming out in the fall called Safe Habits: A Systems Approach to BBS). Opponents of habits contest that focusing on developing habits will turn employees into unthinking robots, when what is really needed are workers who are always alert and situationally aware. While this may seem reasonable on the surface, like most things, it is more complex than it seems.

It is our contention that there are many safety-related behaviors that should be habitual. Some examples include putting on PPE, scanning for hazards prior to starting a task, maintaining 3 points of contact on ladders, and looking before stepping. For supervisors, examples include scanning for hazards when in the work area and having frequent safety interactions with direct reports. Manager examples include asking supervisors about their preventative safety behaviors and considering safety in every decision.

Some of these examples are more traditional habits in which the behavior is done “without thinking.” The classic example is putting on a seat belt in a car. Most of us do that without having to think about it. But some of the other examples above require “thinking.” For example, what good is a hazard scan if all you are do is move your eyes and not think about what could be a hazard, or not take care of a hazard that you see? In reality, “doing a hazard scan” is multiple behaviors, not one behavior, like fastening a seat belt. I suggest that what we want to make a habit is initiating scans prior to starting work. What the performer does during that scan is likely not habitual. It depends on what is observed. Another example is a supervisor asking questions of the crew during start up meetings. The habit is asking questions, the exact question and the conversation that ensues after the question will vary. Encouraging supervisors to develop the habit of asking questions will not turn them into mindless robots, rather it will lead to richer discussions of how to work safely.

Situational awareness provides another interesting example. On the surface it would seem to be the opposite of a habit (mindlessly doing something versus being completely alert and aware of what you are doing). But situational awareness requires behaviors like scanning the work area, asking yourself questions like ‘what could hurt me,” and “what might change that would introduce a hazard.” (see “Situational Awareness: A Safety Miracle Cure?“) Those are behaviors that should become habitual. Habitually looking around and asking yourself those questions will lead to different responses depending on what is seen or heard.

Habit development is an important part of safety. The key is specifying which behaviors need to be habitual. If we want people to be alert and aware, the solution is not to avoid developing habits. Rather, it is to pinpoint behaviors that will help them be alert and aware and turn those into habits.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.