Understanding behavioral influences are key to providing effective solutions to workplace health and safety problems. To better have an understanding of behaviors that could seriously place individuals at risk, awareness of why people act the way they do can very much support your efforts in providing alternative and less risky solutions.
Many companies spend much time and effort into improving health and safety behaviors by addressing engineering controls and provide strong health and safety management systems that act as a framework for reducing workplace accidents and injuries. Over time, given that the application is consistent, these efforts will tend to produce dramatic reductions in accident rates.
Often, however, a number of injuries keep on occurring despite the significant efforts applied to resist them. Many of these can be attributed to peoples carelessness or poor safety attitudes, most triggered by deep-seated unsafe behaviors. Timing, consistency, and significance of any behavior are the key three elements that can be used to very much explain why these types of behaviors occur.
Human beings are naturally impatient and tend to do things that get them instant gratification. When it comes to timing, they would rather the consequences of their behavior take place much sooner rather than later. After all, no one appreciates waiting an hour at a restaurant to get their order, if the exact same order was available somewhere else and could be served in five minutes. I am very sure most of us would choose the latter.
The consistency of achieving a behavior is also a key element that needs to be considered when thinking about why people do the things they do. “Driving very fast on the highway nearly always gets me home in time for my dinner”, “I always feel relaxed as soon as I finish smoking a cigarette” or “Not installing the machine guard helps me finish the job so much quicker” are good examples of when a person’s behaviour consistently gives them a certain outcome.
On the flip side, when outcomes are uncertain and individuals cannot see a consistent result to their actions, they will not take them as seriously as they need to, even though such actions are good for them in the long run or could one day save their lives. This can very much explain why smokers never heed the health warning signs on cigarette boxes. Suffering from lung cancer or loss of stamina as a result of smoking is uncertain and not a definite outcome to smoking, resulting in the warning signs not having the impact they are expected to have.
Thirdly, the behavior has to provide the individual with a significant positive outcome. It is always important to remember that one individual’s perspective of a positive outcome is completely different to another and could depend on preferences, state of mind, goals, and ambitions. I think I can safely say that no one in their right state of mind would choose to do something that gives them a negative outcome.
The combination of Soon, Certain, Positive (or SC+ for short) is always going to be the strongest combination of the desired consequence and is likely to predict any ongoing or future overall behavior of any individual. Behaviors where these three variables exist are often extremely difficult to break and can provide a reasoning behind many at-risk attitudes at the workplace. Not wearing personal protective equipment, removing machine guarding, ignoring lock out tag out procedures and many other at-risk work behaviors happen as they do not provide a complete SC+ solution, and hence, taking shortcuts are always possible.
Let’s take the example of talking on the phone and driving as a common at risk safety behavior we often see on the roads. The traditional way to address this concern at a workplace would be to develop a safety campaign, signs, posters, defensive driver training, policies and procedures to warn against it. Similar techniques have been used on a broader level, where traffic departments provide large-scale countrywide safe driving campaigns through using multiple media outlets.
Such programs have generally shown minimum to little effect when it comes to minimizing the number of vehicle accidents as a result of talking and driving. Looking at this from a SC+ perspective, it is easy to see why. Persons answering the phone when driving receive a powerful soon (Immediately speak to the person on the other side), certain (incoming phone call provided them with the certainty of speaking to the person) and positive (They want to speak to the person on the other side of the phone) outcome. Similar examples can be given of at-risk health behaviors such as smoking where despite all the warnings, smokers continue with the behavior.
Smoking habits or using the mobile phone while driving are complex social behaviors and I will not attempt to say there is only one solution to a person’s motives for displaying such habits are different. In a workplace environment, however, coming up with SC+ may be more straightforward.
In theory, using the concept is simple, this entitles a health and safety department to collectively examine health and safety issues that are directly related to behaviors, see the problems from the workers perspective and replace it with a well thought-out SC+ solution.
In reality, however, coming up with a replacement SC+ is either not always possible or unrealistically costly. An immediate example of how SC+ can be applied in the workplace is preventing at-risk manual handling behaviors by providing mechanical props such as trolleys. The person will still get the job done sooner (as they are using a trolley which they could easily push), certain (they are confident this will work every time) and positive (getting the job done in a timely manner without risking any manual handling injuries). This is a reason why, given availability, you will never have a big problem convincing people to use a trolley to transfer heavy loads rather than carry the load themselves.
In situations where we are unlikely to immediately find alternative SC+ solutions, we can work on minimizing the effects of the at-risk habits by removing the certainty or applying negative influencers. The following table shows the strongest to the weakest combination of consequences:
Internal Vehicle Monitoring Systems (IVMS) for example is a technology now commonly used in companies which have a fleet of vehicles. When individual drivers know that their speeds are monitored by their respective company, They are very likely to immediately start to display safe driving habits. This is because the at-risk behavior of “Driving Fast” has now been reduced to Later, Certain, Negative (LC-). Later, as they now realize they cannot speed as a result of the monitoring, Certain they would arrive, and negative as they realize that they may receive a warning if they are caught.
Simply understanding this concept and applying it to solve every day behavioral safety dilemmas will provide safety professionals with a strong methodology of tackling behavioral safety issues at the workplace; solutions which are relevant, consistent and efficient.