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August 21, 2007

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Code of conduct

The concept of behavioural safety is not new – it has long been recognised that rules and regulations work well until people are added to the mix, as human beings are, by nature irrational and unpredictable. When embracing behavioural safety, the most important thing for any organisation, argues Jane Gilham, is to make sure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.

The case for improved health and safety performance is a clear one. Irrespective of sector, health and safety plays an increasingly key role in how an organisation functions, including how it competes for business and wins contracts, its values and responsibilities, how it creates partnerships, and how it fulfils the requirements of corporate governance. So, with health and safety extending through to the core of the business, it is incumbent upon health and safety practitioners to embrace the science of behaviour, leadership and culture, along with the more traditional functions of the profession.

Behavioural safety can be a powerful force for positive change if it is thought through. Any health and safety professional who has been instructed by the senior team to “implement behavioural safety” will know that it is not a simple process, and fear of the level of work and commitment required is well founded. This fear can lead to a knee-jerk reaction, such as the launch of a “behavioural safety initiative”, which is often simply a case of more, better-structured workplace observations.

Organisations therefore struggle to pinpoint what material changes in terms of behaviour this additional focus has produced, beyond the fact that they are just “doing more”.

Before starting to implement a behavioural programme it is worth identifying how we think about behavioural safety in the first place. One view is that, rather than being the answer, behavioural safety is actually a complex question. One of the first questions relates to where to start – top down or bottom up? While this is important, equally pressing decisions are what is to be measured, and how the organisation plans to capture learning. Failure to identify underlying trends in behaviour, implement holistic root-cause analysis, and share what is learnt across the organisation will not bring about a change in behaviour, culture and subsequent performance.

To return to the “top down/bottom up” question, it could be argued that the former, i.e. working from the senior team downwards to employees and contractors at ground level, is the more effective method. However, there needs to be no doubt about the commitment and passion for safety both expressed and demonstrated by senior leaders. With this approach, there is always the risk of disconnection between board-level aspiration and workforce implementation on the ground. This often occurs at middle-management level on the way down the organisation, and affects many change programmes planned for the business, including health and safety.

Taking the “bottom up” approach, working with supervisors and the workforce is likely to produce more instant and tangible results. Identifying and achieving quick wins is important in order to sell the programme internally and create momentum. However, without the context of strong leadership, a positive safety culture to sustain the changes, or a performance management system that rewards and sanctions the desired behaviours, any momentum will be short-lived.

So, before beginning to implement a behavioural safety programme, it is useful to pose the following questions:

-Do I have buy-in at the top?

– Is the senior team prepared to lead by example?

– Am I clear about the behaviours required and how these can be measured?

– How will learning be shared, and to what purpose?

– Top down or bottom up – how to achieve the right balance?

The three most important factors in implementing a successful behavioural programme are achieving buy-in, positive safety leadership, and the balance between corporate drive and local ownership.

Buy – the way

Selling the rationale for behavioural safety is relatively straightforward: everyone wants to improve health and safety performance, not one wants to get hurt, and no one wants to hurt anyone else. It is less straightforward to persuade people to understand and act on the changes required of them in terms of their personal day-to-day behaviour. Whether the “top down” or “bottom up” approach is chosen, the issue remains the same: there is a balance to be achieved between corporate-led communication and work with individuals to foster understanding of what this means to them – and what’s in it for them. Changing behaviour when the individual has never suffered a negative consequence for the way they’ve been doing things before is challenging, and takes time. So what can help?

First, communication. Messages must be simple, clear and compelling. People need to understand what the goal is, and why their personal support and action matters. Accountability and responsibility are frequently discussed in the context of health and safety. At corporate level, there must be clarity about what is permitted and what is not, what is rewarded, and what is disciplined. This must then be implemented consistently. Individuals must recognise how and where corporate responsibility and their own accountability for personal safety and those of their peers meet.

Introducing behavioural safety can fail because of “initiative overload” so it is important to ensure that it is not perceived as a corporate-led, short-term effort. How behavioural safety links in to the existing values and vision of the business must be clearly communicated. The behaviours required will be similar to those of strong leadership, positive team-working, and good business management, outside of the health and safety context. In this way, behavioural safety becomes part of how the organisation behaves overall, rather than being an add-on.

Communication needs to be constant and the message consistent. Think about how you can target the entire organisation and keep the message fresh. What channels are open to you? Which are best suited to your purpose? Are you trying to update the organisation, reinforce KPIs, sell ideas, or elicit them? Communication must be carefully planned and the most appropriate medium chosen. What works for the board will not work on the front line.

The second requirement supporting buy-in is the creation of a back-up culture, and setting realistic expectations about how fast this will happen. Introducing behavioural safety cannot be separated from creating cultural change. Asking people to change how they think and behave will have an impact on the collective culture, best described as “the way we do things around here”. We can, and should, create early momentum, maintain the focus, and manage repetition of the key messages.

The real work, however, takes place over a much longer period and is created by small, individual actions on a local level. Its evidence is subtle. We should be asking and looking for both hard indicators, such as accident frequency rate and repeats, and soft indicators, such as more qualitative feedback in health and safety observation reports. A higher number of reports returned with the comment “nothing to report” should be a cause for concern not celebration. We can also look for a higher number of reported near misses, local improvement plans, and incidents of employees refusing to undertake a job that is in an inherently unsafe environment, rather than take a short cut in the belief that they will get away with it.

The third, and perhaps most important, requirement to achieving buy-in is the role taken by managers and supervisors. They will need to recognise that every engagement they have with the workforce is an opportunity to motivate them to behave safely, and should be exploited as such. This places a responsibility on their shoulders to lead by example and to think about how site visits, toolbox talks, and safety observations can reinforce the message.

Many managers and supervisors are in position because of their technical ability, but they also require people skills to do what is asked of them to influence, coach, praise and discipline performance in a way that produces a positive change in behaviour. This requires managers, supervisors and safety reps to be out in the field so they can work to change behaviour at antecedent level. This is more effective than waiting for a consequence to happen and then exploring what went wrong – or almost did.

With all the will in the world, however, time can be an issue. For this reason, it can be useful to implement a simple framework that helps managers and supervisors plan and execute short, safety-focused activity on a regular basis. Small but consistent changes in safe behaviour are the goal, as they will help shape the culture of the organisation.

Leader logic

Buy-in will only be maintained if there is positive safety leadership throughout the organisation – not just from those in the management line. Leadership is an attitude and style of working that should be encouraged and supported. The goal is to empower each employee to take what action is necessary to behave safely, and to encourage colleagues and peers to do the same, secure in the knowledge that they will not be reprimanded for doing so. Empowerment is a tricky word. So-called “empowered” teams can become confused and demotivated because they have no idea what they are supposed to do – only that they are supposed to be out there doing it!

To work well, empowerment must be given a context and clear parameters. This is not a contradiction in terms. First of all, the culture built must be just. A “no blame” culture engenders no responsibility or accountability. Empowerment works when accountability and responsibility are clearly aligned. Management must seek ideas and, more importantly, be prepared to listen and act on what comes back. There is a risk of disconnection between corporate edict and local implementation, where managers lack sensitivity to the environmental or other factors limiting safe performance. Asking for views and taking prompt action to remove barriers will encourage empowerment and ownership to flourish.

During implementation, then, it is useful to ask:

– What am I trying to communicate and have I chosen the most appropriate way?

– Are my expectations of the speed of change and results realistic?

– Can I demonstrate how this programme links to the core of the organisation, rather than being an add-on?

– Are managers freed up and skilled to manage?

– Is leadership at all levels encouraged and nurtured?

Six of one, half a dozen of the other

Implementing behavioural safety in a single site environment has its challenges, but these do not compare to those encountered in a multi-site, 24-hour operation. There are also partner organisations and the supply chain to consider. Strong behavioural safety programmes are driven from the company values, principles and specific desired behaviours – we cannot impose these on other organisations, or police their application 24/7 in our own. Instead, we need to create a balance between corporate leadership and local ownership, while exerting a positive influence on the supply chain.

Key points here are to be clear about the components of your programme, and what is up for debate and what is not. For example, communication of the goal and key steps, together with what is measured, how, and what is expected of the management team at all levels, could all be set. Local improvements, training, coaching, and communication of local progress can be more flexible, with learning picked up and shared centrally. This is not a simple task, but it pays dividends in terms of employee involvement. Any behavioural safety programme should ultimately be owned and driven by the local workforce, within a clear framework of goals, an effective safety management system, and behavioural expectations set at central level.


Behavioural safety truly is a complex question, and implementing a programme requires long-term commitment and a robust, flexible plan. In summary, the key elements to consider before starting out are as follows:

– Culture change takes time and effort. Be prepared to create early momentum then dig in for long-term reinforcement at local level;

– How will you learn? Placing a greater focus on behavioural safety will, in turn, put reporting and measurement up for review. Exploring and sharing what can be learned from a higher level of near-miss reporting, for example, and understanding what drives any trend in unsafe behaviour, will make a sustained difference to safety performance;

– Think about the question “what does this mean to me?” at all levels in the organisation. Rational acceptance of the programme is relatively simple. Engaging the hearts, motivation and recognition of what others personally need to do is harder;

– Communicate with passion. Leave no one in doubt that this is happening, and why;

– Choose your method and style of communication to engage the audience you are trying to reach. A “one size fits all” cascade rarely works;

– Be specific about the actions you expect people to take. Provide simple guidance/check-lists at all levels – if necessary, from the senior team downwards;

– Empowerment is a tricky word. Ensure it is supported by a positive culture and clear responsibility and accountability;

– Leadership is an attitude of mind. Think about how leadership can be encouraged. This will mean tolerance of mistakes and real, active listening from those in a management position;

– Be sensitive to local issues and work to understand and remove barriers; and finally,

– Think about the balance between a centrally-driven approach and local ownership, what needs to be consistent, and what is open to local interpretation.

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