People are not Rats–Moving Beyond Behaviour Based Safety

Interesting article by Clive Lloyd – first published here:

People are not Rats–Moving Beyond Behaviour Based Safety

imageYou are entitled to your opinions – you are not entitled to your own facts!

Lately it seems empirical evidence, peer-reviewed research and being guided by experts has given way to mere opinions and (to use the current parlance) “fake news”.

While evidence can (and should) provide sound policy direction on matters of great urgency such as climate change and vaccinating children against measles and polio, increasingly these days populist politicians seem to be swayed by vested interest groups and common-or-garden conspiracy theorists who seem to be extremely adept at gaining social media exposure for their self-serving version of “the truth”.

Such stubborn resistance to doing what efficacy studies point to as current best practice has also been commonplace in the safety arena for decades, most notably in the continued use of (and advocacy for) Behavior-Based Safety (BBS).

Despite the fact that behaviourism (as a theory of human behaviour) was debunked decades ago, BBS is still distressingly commonplace in the mining, oil & gas and construction sectors today.

Take the following extract from Smith, T. (1999): What is wrong with Behavior Based Safety. Professional Safety.

“It is not at all unusual these days to pick up a copy of any current safety magazine and find articles and advertisements celebrating the principles, methods and application of behavior-based safety. There are obviously a large number of advocates of behavior-based safety. Indeed, the only thing that seems to be larger than the number of BBS advocates is the number of articles and advertisements in print.

There comes a time when an idea is so prevalent it is accepted and applied without question. When this happens we are so conditioned to the correctness of it we fail to examine its basic premise. I believe we are at that point when it comes to behavior-based safety. At the risk of invoking the wrath of those safety professionals who advocate its use I am going to suggest it’s time to re-examine the behavior-based safety (BBS) model. I will also propose that in the present and future workplace BBS is not just partially but a totally wrong solution to preventing accidents at work.

Behaviorists believe that consequences are the driving force to changing people’s behavior. The tools of positive and negative reinforcement are what is needed to make people behave in the prescribed manner. Consequences are those events that occur as a result of behavior. Positive reinforcement rewards a person for behaving in a certain way. Negative reinforcement provides unwanted or unpleasant consequences. The theory is punishment decreases the probability a behavior will be repeated. Some behaviorist believe that negative reinforcement prompts only a minimal level of compliance. However, positive reinforcement encourages employees to exceed the minimum.

Many of the articles that defend and advocate behavior-based safety point out the enormous amount of research substantiating it. They do not mention the large amount of scientific research that refutes it.

A major problem with behavior-based safety is the fact that when behaviorism was held up to the scrutiny of the scientific method it failed.

Behaviorism denies internal processing that goes on in human beings. The behaviorist research could not explain for example the behavior in rats when at the beginning of an extinction trial an animal would respond to the stimulus with more vigor than it had during a long series of reinforcements. If a rat that had been getting a food pellet each time it pressed a bar was deprived of the pellet, it would press the bar with more force repetitively. The strict behaviorist theory predicted that the absence of the reward should have weakened the response, not strengthened it.

Behaviorism failed other tests of scientific method. For instance it could not provide an adequate explanation of memory. Reward and repetition provided only a partial explanation of rat behavior and an even less satisfactory one for human behavior. The internal workings of the mind were more or less ignored by behaviorist and explained away as insignificant. Their use of the stimulus-response bond for example did not account for memory and how it works. Even the behaviorist realized that memory was more than a chain of mathematical terms. Memory has different forms such as short term and long term that behaviorism could not address.

There were many other things that psychologists needed to explore such as motivation, perception, creativity, problem-solving, experience and interpersonal relations. Eventually, new data was gathered on these subjects and raised questions that behaviorism couldn’t explain. This brought about a paradigm shift and led the way to a new theory of psychology – known as “cognitive science”, in the 1960’s. The field of psychology may have advanced beyond behaviorism but in the field of management it is quite a different story. Behaviorism is still applied with a vengeance by managers. The fact is it is very useful in a command and control management system. We have applied it with such force and magnitude we now accept its premise without question”.

Despite the above being written almost 20 years ago, and having been followed by a plethora of similar critiques, BBS is still advocated by many. It is not only fake news, it is really OLD fake news!

In the meantime, actual evidence points to the importance of cultural aspects of organisations in terms of influencing safe operations, in particular, trust, engagement and a care-based approach from leaders.

As an example, consider the following extract from a recent study conducted by the Australian National University (Gunningham, N., & Sinclair, D. (2012). Building Trust: OHS Management in the Mining Industry. The Australian National University.

“As is widely acknowledged, the role of senior management in creating trust is crucial (Hopkins 2002; Whitener et al., 1998). Senior management sets the priorities, establishes the values, and provides the resources that substantially shape mine management and workforce responses. Messages conveyed by senior management, particularly as to whether and how much they value safety and the wellbeing of the workforce, are part of the composite picture that workers develop as to the company’s motivations and behaviour. As Conchie et al. (2006) point out in their overview of the trust literature, “a good organisational safety culture typically relies on good safety leadership [that] promotes shared values and commitment to an organization’s safety policies”.

Our own research supports this view, but it also highlighted three related and important issues. First, we found a number of instances where the absence of leadership at corporate level served to undermine site level initiatives. For example at one mine in our sample, mine management had managed with some difficulty to establish a genuine reporting culture and, unsurprisingly, the number of reported incidents had risen. The manager was then criticised by corporate management for the worsening safety performance of the mine, as measured by incident reporting.

This unsurprisingly served to undermine both the credibility of the reporting initiative and the leadership of mine management who had promoted it. Second (and closely connected to the above) a lack of corporate leadership can exacerbate mistrust at mine site level, with adverse consequences for OHS. Strikingly, the three lowest OHS ranked mines in our sample (one from each company) displayed the highest levels of mistrust towards corporate management. In one case, mine management viewed corporate OHS interventions as an unwelcome and unjustified intrusion into their internal affairs, while two others doubted the competence of corporate management to fulfil their stated OHS ambitions, and perceived their intervention as an expression of corporate mistrust in mine management’s own competence. In contrast, at many of the better performing mines there is far more acceptance of the desirability, effectiveness and benefits of corporate OHS interventions.

Third, we found that senior management commitment was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the success of OHS initiatives. For even where senior management set high health and safety standards, developed an ambitious corporate OHS vision, disseminated the safety message widely, and introduced sophisticated safety management tools, their efforts were still likely to rendered ineffective if either (i) mine management mistrusted corporate initiatives, or (ii) there is such mistrust at the level of the workforce sub-culture that even well intentioned management initiatives are treated with cynicism and undermined.

In these circumstances our findings suggest that even the existence of advanced and sophisticated tools of internal management regulation (including OHS management systems) may be insufficient to deliver improved OHS outcomes at mine site level.

In terms of building trust, and through it, improved OHS, these findings have two important implications. First,  unless the mistrust of the workforce can be overcome then even the most well-intentioned and sophisticated management initiatives will be treated with cynicism and undermined.

Our findings suggested that without trust workers treated almost all corporate management safety initiatives with suspicion and refused to buy into them. Safety observations were perfunctory, incident reporting was trivialised or ignored, systems were more honoured in the breach, and sophisticated electronic monitoring systems were side tracked. Second, mine management leadership on OHS (and middle management commitment) is every bit as important as corporate leadership and worker mistrust will not be overcome without it. Indeed, the majority of workers do not identify with corporate management, and are largely unaware of them. This emphasises the importance of personal relationships and daily contact with mine site management in providing the opportunity for the demonstration of safety leadership.

Accordingly, developing mechanisms that build a cooperative relationship between mine site management and the workforce and that obtain worker “buy-in” to management based initiatives will be crucial”

Arguably, widely disseminated “fake news” may not be of any great gravitas when it is about relatively trivial matters.  However, when we are talking about the safety of our people we cannot afford to simply “do what everyone else is doing”.  Most thinking people still vaccinate their children against measles and polio, despite the ever-growing chorus of conspiracy theories amid the “fake news” that immunising children causes autism. If we are capable of such rational decision making about the health of our children, surely we are also able to make informed decisions about best practice when it comes to the safety of our people?


Clive Lloyd is an Australian psychologist specialising in Psychological Safety, well-being and mentally- healthy workplaces. He is the director of GYST Consulting Pty Ltd, and developer of the acclaimed Care Factor Program.

4 Replies to “People are not Rats–Moving Beyond Behaviour Based Safety”

  1. If an industry can deny human fallibility in the ideology of zero it is a piece of cake to believe the nonsense of BBS. The truth is, BBS suits the scientism and materialism of a faith-based industry that has many years to go before it can ever be described as ‘professional’. One simply cannot be professional or ethical in the denial of fallibility. Just imagine doctors, teachers and lawyers insisting on zero. Ha, real professions must look on at poor little perfectionist safety and laugh at the delusion.

  2. Behaviourists such as Watson and Skinner somewhat spectacularly fail to explain how Beethoven’s late quartets were a conditioned response to his prevailing circumstances, especially during the last decade of an illustrious career in classical music

  3. Although somewhat off topic, this made me think of a conversation I had recently with my daughter, who is a psychology student. We discussed the conundrum of me being a stickler for using safety belts, insist on buying cars with air bags, yet find it perfectly acceptable to ride a motorcycle. I tried to rationalise with arguments like “If it is there, it should be used”, but in the end had to acknowledge that I do not really know why safety belts on one hand is an issue (for which I do not apologise), yet can live (and enjoy) the risk of what is accepted to be one of the most dangerous legal forms of personal transport.

  4. Wynand, the feeling of risk (Slovic) is very different from the cognitvism of risk. Risk is a not a brain activity but rather an embodied activity, something Safety simply doesn’t get.

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