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From the BP Disaster to the Ever Present Occupational Hazards, New Book Offers Scientific Solution to Workplace Safety

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October 20, 2010

Safety experts Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels say behavioral science, not engineering or physics, holds key to improving workplace safety

For Immediate Release
PKPR, 212-627-8098

Atlanta, Georgia – A new book says that science could have helped prevent everything from the BP oil spill to the recent recall of salmonella-tainted eggs, but not the science that requires microscopes and lab coats.  

In Safe By Accident: Take the Luck Out of Safety: Leadership Practices that Build a Sustainable Safety Culture, authors Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels argue that the solution to improving workplace safety lies not in the latest engineering, physics, or chemistry advancements, but in the science of human behavior. 

Based on decades of research and work with many of the world’s leading corporations, Agnew (Removing Obstacles to Safety) and Daniels (Bringing out the Best in People) reveal how many companies are “safe by accident” because they focus too heavily on lagging indicators, such as low incident rates. According to the authors, 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.  

Moving beyond finger-pointing, the authors reveal how behavioral science, specifically behavior analysis, can help organizations eliminate counterproductive practices and foster a company-wide culture of safety -- from the boardroom to supervisors to employees on the front lines. 

Agnew and Daniels identify what is missing in safety leadership, particularly around accountability, and explore seven widespread safety practices that waste time and money, such as incentive programs, safety signage, and punishment. Using case studies and examples from a wide spectrum of industries, the authors debunk these and other safety practices and reveal what companies should do instead, including:  

  •  The dangers of punishment: As evidenced by investigations into the BP disaster, employees often fail to report safety concerns because they fear reprisal. Punishing unsafe behavior creates a culture of cover-ups, where errors go unreported and employees play the blame game. Most punitive managers do not see themselves as punishers, but it becomes obvious in how they respond to near-misses, rare errors, and the safety culture they create.
  • Why incentives must not be based on incident rates: Using incident rates as a yardstick is not only ineffective but can often result in accidentally reinforcing unsafe and unethical behavior. Focus instead on tracking and reinforcing improvements in safe behavior. While celebrating and rewarding zero accidents and injuries is an unsafe practice, working safely 100 percent of the time is an achievable goal without the use of extensive tangible rewards and incentives.
  • The proper role of technology: Computers can reduce human error in the short term, but they can also reduce long-term reinforcement -- putting monitoring behaviors on extinction and opening the door to catastrophic failure. Behavioral technology offers a way to detect the potential for rare errors and to insure that safety processes are sustainable over long periods.
  • How to use positive reinforcement effectively: Positive reinforcement means more than just praising safe behavior. 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 safe behavior and increase production, quality, and cost efficiencies.

“At a time when recent workplace accidents have resulted in injury, death, and untold environmental and economic damage, we need to rethink our safety practices using science and proven systems rather than questionable conventions,” said Agnew, a workplace safety and behavior expert with more than 19 years of consulting experience. "Companies that fail to take a scientific approach to human behavior are gambling with their futures and putting the lives and livelihoods of their employees and communities at risk.”  


Dr. Judy Agnew is Senior Vice President of Safety Solutions at Aubrey Daniels International (ADI). With more than 19 years of consulting experience and a Ph.D. in Applied Behavior Analysis, Agnew partners with clients to create behavior-based interventions leading to optimal and sustainable organizational change. Agnew has worked in a variety of industries including oil and gas, mining, forest products, utilities, food and non-food manufacturing, distribution, assembly, insurance, banking, newspapers and retail. In addition to her consulting, project management and instructional design work, Judy is recognized as a thought leader in the field of behavioral safety and performance management. Judy has presented at major safety conferences including the National Safety Council and Behavioral Safety Now as well as other key corporate conferences. She is the author of Removing Obstacles to Safety (with Gail Snyder).

Dr. Aubrey C. Daniels, founder of ADI, has devoted more than 30 years to working with organizations of all types and sizes to apply the science of human behavior in their workplace. A passionate thought leader and an internationally recognized expert on management, leadership, and workplace issues, Daniels has been featured in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fortune, CNN, and CNBC. Daniels is a member of the Board of Trustees of both Furman University and the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. He is an Associate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, an adjunct faculty member of the College of Health Professions at the University of Florida, and a visiting professor at Florida State University. Daniels is the author of four best-selling books widely recognized as international management classics: Bringing out the Best in People, Performance Management, Other People’s Habits, and Measure of a Leader (with James E. Daniels).