Taking a Safety Culture Selfie

My teenage kids are constantly taking selfies. Despite my general distaste for the practice, there are some positive side effects. It occurs to me that my kids have more accurate self-images than I did at their age. They know what they look like, from every angle, because they are constantly looking at pictures of themselves (selfies and pictures taken by their friends). It’s a form of constant self-assessment. This realization got me thinking about safety culture self-assessments. Are safety selfies helpful?

Safety is a continuous improvement endeavor. We are never done. It is never enough. Even when organizations have stellar lagging, and leading indicators, we all know that the possibility of an incident still looms. Knowing this is what drives organizations to keep doing more; to keep investing their time and/or resources in ways to make the workplace even safer. Conducting assessments of progress is an important component of continuous improvement. But self-assessments can be difficult and/or misleading.

Natural biases, organizational politics, and simply being unable to see the forest for the trees makes conducting a self-assessment challenging. In both safety and photography, a different perspective is helpful. Looking at your safety systems and processes from a different vantage point can illuminate what is working well and should be continued, what isn’t working and should be discontinued, and what might be missing that can take your organization to the next level in safety.

The science of behavior provides an extremely helpful vantage point from which to view your safety culture and practices. After all, safety is about behavior. We accomplish improvements in safety through a variety of behaviors—for example:

  • executives making decisions that support safety,
  • supervisors identifying and eliminating hazards,
  • EHS professionals providing effective safety training,
  • managers giving clear messages about the importance of safe production, and
  • front-line performers following safety procedures.

The optimal safety environment requires different behaviors from many different people at all levels of an organization. Conducting a behavioral assessment allows organizations to evaluate the consistency and quality of those critical behaviors and determine how well the organization supports those behaviors over time. Too often organizations fool themselves into thinking that safety behaviors are happening consistently just because they have training, rules, and safety meetings.

A few years ago I experienced a clear example of this when an executive of a large transportation company said to me, “What I want to know is how do we prevent an accident like the one we just had where a guy got hurt because he wasn’t wearing his hard hat, and that was the only time he worked without his hard hat in the 15 years he worked for us?” I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. He believed that because wearing hard hats was a rule, and they had disciplinary processes in place, if workers were caught without their hard hats, that meant everyone wore the hats consistently (except this one guy, on this one day). While extreme, this is an example of how a lack of understanding of behavior can blind people from what is really happening and therefore from what improvements they should be focusing on.

The science of behavior has much to teach us, but there are two lessons in particular that will help you look at your safety management system from a different vantage point:

  • Behavior is a function of consequences, not antecedents. Training, signage, safety meetings, rules, checklists, and procedures are all antecedents. They are important because they set people up to do the right things, but by themselves, they don’t lead to persistent behavior (safe habits). If you want to truly understand why at-risk behavior is happening (and therefore how to change it), look at what happens to people while they are engaging in safe and at-risk behaviors. Paying attention to consequences will lead to a more helpful assessment.
  • Immediate and certain consequences are much more powerful than future and uncertain consequences. Not all consequences are equal. Thus, an accurate assessment requires looking at what happens to employees consistently and most often when they engage in at-risk behaviors. Safety professionals have a tendency to focus on injuries and incidents, but for most at-risk behaviors, getting hurt is highly unlikely (you can speed for years without getting in an accident), and/or in the future (e.g., hearing loss due to years of not wearing hearing protection). Those are weaker than the consequences that happen every day. In fact, most at-risk behaviors have immediate and certain payoffs, such as: Being more comfortable, easier, less of a hassle, and often, making working easier. A better understanding of the power of immediate and certain consequences leads to significantly more accurate assessments and more impactful change efforts.

These may sound like simple concepts, but this shift in vantage point will make a significant difference (and simple isn’t necessarily easy). Whether you are planning to make improvements, in the middle of a new initiative, or wrapping up some change effort, applying a behavioral lens to take stock of where you are will help you see gaps and opportunities that you might not otherwise see, and it will help ensure that your improvement efforts pay off.

Learn more about ADI’s Safety Assessments.

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.