a spotlight on the human aspects of accident prevention

The behavioural safety approach

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Any injury or loss of life caused by accidents is both tragic and avoidable.  In the oil and gas industry, the Piper Alpha disaster is one of the more well-known incidents where safety was compromised in multiple areas – in their systems, processes and in human behaviour.  More recent incidents such as the Costa Concordia ferry disaster highlight especially the effect that human error can have on the safety of crew and passengers. 

Since Piper Alpha, organisations have worked hard to improve safety standards in their systems and processes.  However, managing human error (eg. lapses, mistakes, etc) is still a process that is on-going and requires constant training and coaching.  Humans are essentially forgetful creatures and in order to create a strong safety culture within any organisation, management will need to reinforce the message of being mindful about safety on a regular basis.

Organisations who are serious about improving safety standards are now adopting the behavioural safety approach.  Behavioural safety was defined by Professor Dominic Cooper as “the systematic application of psychological research on human behaviour to the problems of safety in the workplace”.

The aim is to continually improve safety standards by understanding and bringing about changes in human behaviour.  While the behavioural safety approach should not replace other methods of improving safety such as risk assessments, safeguards, rules, procedures, etc,… the behavioural safety approach can complement these more traditional approaches to safety as it primarily deals with the potential for human error, which the traditional approaches do not include.

All human behaviour is influenced by beliefs, values, perceptions, attitudes and assumptions.  This can be understood using the iceberg concept seen below.

Often, workers are not even aware of the existence of their own beliefs and values, perceptions, attitudes and assumptions that drive their behaviour.  If management do not understand the need for providing information, training and coaching on human behaviour, they can be mystified as to why their attempts to modify and influence behaviour to improve safety can be ineffective.

Workers need to be made aware of “what is under the water” and to learn how to manage their beliefs, values, perceptions, attitudes and assumptions in order to change their behaviour to be more mindful of safety.  For example, many of us may not be aware of the variety of beliefs that we access to get through a day.  When we sit on a chair or climb a ladder, we are acting on the belief that the chair or ladder will hold our weight. 

We may also hold on to some beliefs and assumptions that could even prevent us from modifying our behaviour, if we believe that the resultant change will introduce something we fear into our lives.  For example, a manager may be reluctant to share information because he assumes that by holding on to all that information, he will be less likely to be made redundant or have someone else take over his job.  However, his assumption may actually be getting in the way of everyone being able to work safely since vital information may be withheld.

Organisations that are committed to improving safety and to constantly learning and changing will be more likely to survive in the long run.  With the regular turnover of staff and the need for constant improvements in safety, organisations will always need to be providing information, training and coaching in order to create a strong safety culture in the workplace.  The behavioural safety approach, when combined with other more traditional safety measures, will ensure that safety is always a top priority in any area of work.


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