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INDUSTRY VOICES: Taking a behaviour based safety approach

Mike McKenna
INDUSTRY VOICES: Taking a behaviour based safety approach

What do the following have in common: Sun tanning; smoking; texting while driving; and not wearing appropriate safety gear on a construction site?

If you said they are all examples of high-risk behaviors, you would be correct.

Now what about the following: Pamphlets about the dangers of sun exposure; graphic images of blackened lungs on cigarette packages; television campaigns about the dangers of texting while driving; and brochures and signs about why it’s important to wear appropriate safety gear on construction sites?

If you said they are all examples of information that won’t stop people from engaging in the risky behaviors, you would be right again.

Think about it. If you’ve been sun tanning and smoking for 20 years and you feel great, why would you stop?

If you text in the car and you’ve never had an accident, why wouldn’t you keep on texting?

And, if you don’t wear appropriate gear on the job and you’ve never had an accident, why would you start now – especially if the boss is happy with your work?

The fact is, no matter how relevant, important or well presented it is, information does not change behavior.

Individuals must be motivated to stop doing what puts them at risk.

I have been thinking about this a lot within the context of our industry where, despite plenty of good information, there are still too many accidents – most of which are preventable.

So what can be done to change that reality, especially in those categories that continue to be responsible for the most incidents and seem to defy solutions: falls; struck/by against; and overexertion?

One possibility is behavior-based safety (BBS), an approach that focuses on motivation and positive reinforcement to create a workplace culture, where acting in safe ways becomes second nature. It’s where employees don’t think twice about tying off on a roof, wearing safety goggles, or choosing the right ladder for the job.

In basic terms, BBS (which is rooted in behavioral science) assumes that every behavior is followed by a consequence that acts to either encourage or discourage the behavior in the future.

So, for example, a worker who doesn’t wear safety glasses and has never had an accident is reinforced to continue the risky behavior.

Only when he or she is injured will steps be taken to change the behavior.

A BBS approach works to identify ways to motivate and reinforce employees to "do the right thing."

In this case, it’s to wear safety glasses, rather than simply provide information about the dangers of not doing so or waiting for an accident to happen before stepping in.

Although a BBS approach focuses on specific, desirable behaviors, it is important to stress that it does not ignore the role of safety systems and information, hazard awareness, mentoring, incident control, tool box talks and so on.

Nor does it bypass the role of factors beyond individual control, such as poor management or inadequate training; creating an effective safety culture is a company-wide responsibility, regardless of the approach.

What is different is the focus on actively working to motivate and reinforce appropriate safety behaviour, even when a company has a good safety record, rather than simply creating safety expectations and hope for compliance.

I believe that BBS is worth considering and could prove beneficial, especially in relation to bringing down high rates of injuries for which traditional methods aren’t working.

If you are interested in learning more about BBS, I would be happy to provide resources that describe the theory and practice of this approach and include examples that can be applied across all companies and industries.

Mike McKenna is the executive director of the B.C. Construction Safety Alliance. Direct comments or questions to

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