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July 17, 2015

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Safety Behaviour Change

By Dr Claire Williams, consultant, Human Applications

Two years ago, I co-authored an article with Margaret Hanson in SHP magazine about behaviour change in a health and safety context (Just one more thing, SHP, July 2013). In the article, we discussed one model in particular – the COM-B (1) – which we liked for its elegance and simplicity and which we valued for the research base from which it is drawn. The model is the central core of the Behaviour Change Wheel (BCW) (1) which will be discussed later in this run of articles.

As Figure 1 models, the COM-B posits that three things are required for a behaviour to take place: the capability (physical and/or psychological); the motivation (both reflective and automatic); and the opportunity (which might be physical and/or social).


In the intervening two years, we have used this model to support health and safety interventions in a variety of contexts. Most importantly, we have used it to help drive a radical rethink in the behavioural safety programmes of the organisations with which we work. This run of four articles outlines some of the thinking and experiences we have had over the last two years.

What’s wrong with behavioural safety?

Behavioural safety has wrongly been billed as the silver bullet to cure all ills. At their worst, behavioural safety interventions can:

  • Treat people like commodities or like animals. In some behavioural programmes organisations try to manipulate workers into behaving in certain ways and then blame them for getting it wrong; neglecting to consider the system or organisational failures that supported those behaviours.
  • Be un-targeted – not clearly defining what the goals are for the intervention, based on a sound assessment of the specific issues.
  • Ignore evidence – failing to draw on decades of psychology research in the health arena to support initiatives.
  • Fail to give feedback – so that, rather than take a step-by-step approach, with learning for all, en route, the initiative is a one off, often ‘tick-box’ exercise.

These issues along with others concerning ‘safe behaviour programmes’ have been discussed at length over the last decade (2). It’s tempting to avoid the whole field of behavioural safety altogether, so as not to fall into the considerable number of traps we find there. However, understanding what drives workplace behaviours, and how this relates to safe performance, should be a pivotal part of health and safety practice across the globe.

Getting the right focus on behaviour

It goes without saying that attending to the basics in the workplace should be the groundwork that precedes any attention to behaviours. By this we mean there should be well maintained and ‘fit for purpose’ workplace and equipment, with systems and procedures that work for the people who have to use them. Already, attending to these things drives workplace behaviours because (using the language of the COM-B) they impact on a worker’s physical opportunity to perform. Keeping on top of the basics also shows that these issues matter in the organisation, which is part of the social context or social opportunity, as the COM-B model would bill it.

Furthermore, the worker participation that helps assure the constant optimisation of the workplace, equipment and systems also feeds into both opportunity and motivational drivers of behaviour. Indeed we recognise all of these as aspects as important for safety climate – the ‘frame of reference’ through which people understand what is expected, supported and rewarded in an organisation (3, 4). In other words, just ‘doing the groundwork’ drives safety performance. And this leads to an important question for the next article… what do we mean by safe performance?

ClaireWilliams-7504Dr Claire Williams is a senior consultant at Human Applications and a Visiting Fellow in Human Factors and Behaviour Change at the University of Derby. She was the Principal Investigator on the IOSH funded project ‘Measuring the impact of behaviour change techniques on break taking behaviour at work’.

In her role at Human Applications she provides consultancy and training to industry and government organisations in behavior change, human factors and risk management.

This blog is the first in a series of four to be published on SHP online.


1. Michie, S et al (2011): ‘The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions’, in Implementation Science 2011, 6:42 – 1/42

2. Hopkins, A 2006, ‘What are we to make of safe behaviour programs?’, Safety Science, vol. 44, pp. 583-597.

3. Zohar, D. 2010. “Thirty Years of Safety Climate Research: Reflections and Future Directions.” Accident Analysis & Prevention 42 (5): 1517–1522. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2009.12.019.

4. Clarke, S. 2006. “The Relationship between Safety Climate and Safety Performance: A Meta- Analytic Review.” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 11 (4): 315–327. doi:10.1037/ 1076-8998.11.4.315.

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Mike Kelly
Mike Kelly
7 years ago

A good article. As one who works on the client side and has to ensure that contractors follow company safety rules & regulations, I can say from experience that BBS programs are at times, very hit and miss. Often no more than a paperwork exercise that does not properly feed back to the workforce. An exercise to obtain statistics (targeted # of submissions per week per person etc) rather than useful and meaningful data. If used incorrectly, the BBS system is also used as a weapon to get people fired (by ganging up and naming the alleged offending person on… Read more »