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August 27, 2015

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Understanding and identifying safe performance

By Dr Claire Williams, consultant, Human Applications

Having done the ‘groundwork’ as described in the first article on Safety Behaviour Change (a constant round of workplace, equipment and system optimisation – so never really ‘done’) – identifying the behavioural issues on which to focus is paramount. It’s easy to make a number of errors in this.

If only people just stuck to the rules…

The first error comes from taking too simplistic a view of safe performance; identifying ‘sticking to the rules’ as safe and the main goal, whilst not adhering to them as unsafe and contrary to the organisational goals. Having an understanding of the constant adjustments required to complete many work tasks is key (1).

Modern workplaces regularly require workers to make thoroughness vs efficiency trade-offs which can lead to better ways of working; of course sometimes these trade-offs can expose workers to more risk at levels we do not want to tolerate, but let’s be clear, organisational goals are often driving this. It is worth reflecting that organisations can be crippled if their workforce decide simply to ‘work to rule’.

In essence, we must not be guilty of too simplistic a view about the reasons the workforce might have for not following procedures; usually the simplistic view settles on lacking the right motivation (they ‘can’t be bothered’; ‘have other priorities’; or worse, ‘are being deliberately defiant’). As we’ll see in the next article, the COM-B approach (2) is really helpful in dealing with this error – effectively a fundamental attribution error – that is falsely attributing the behaviour to some inherent deficiency in the worker.

Separating behaviours from outcomes…

Another potential mistake when it comes to promoting safe behaviours, is defining the outcome you’re after, rather than the behaviour. So for example, Michie et al. (2) use the health issue of being overweight to explain the difference between outcomes and behaviours. In this instance weight loss is not actually a behavioural target but rather an outcome – telling someone to lose weight does not support them in outlining the behaviours that will lead to this.

On the other hand, eating fewer calories is a broad behavioural target – this has moved from outcome to an action or behaviour, all be it one that requires a large amount of background knowledge to achieve. Cutting out high fat food is a specific behavioural target…and can be even more specific if you move to cut out cake!

In a more safety based example, telling someone to having fewer manual handling injuries is not a behavioural target, it’s an outcome. Handling well is a broad behavioural target but again depends on folk knowing what that means. Directing workers to use particular principles or techniques when handling particular objects, however, is a specific behavioural target and moves towards something you can see and supervise.

 Safe performance

We need to understand that workers are only able to work safely if the underpinning systems are in place. However, we recognise that safety performance is not intuitive. The 1980’s US TV Show ‘Hill Street Blues” used to start each episode with the admonishment “Let’s be careful out there”. General performance instructions like this will not drive behaviours. However, if we need to set expected behaviours for each and every situation we will rapidly move to the point where the worker is unable to remember or enact the ‘right’ behaviours. We need to enable safety performance by creating a framework for the individual in which it is easier to do the ‘right’ thing than to do anything else.

We see nudges in performance in the design of equipment – it fails to safe or uses guarding that is interlocked. Tools are designed to protect the worker – for example safety knives; low vibration hand tools. All of these are important, but fundamentally we need the worker to make a good decision when doing any job. To do this, we need to understand that safety performance is driven by three factors. In the third article we will explore these behavioural drivers and consider how they can be used to support safer behaviours.

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 second in a series of four to be published on SHP online. Read the first article by Claire on Safety Behaviour Change.

 References for article 2

1. Hollnagel, E. (2009) The ETTO Principle: Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-Off – Why Things That Go Right Sometimes Go Wrong.

2. Michie et al (2014) The Behaviour Change wheel – A guide to designing interventions

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Safety Behaviour Change « Human Apps Human Apps
8 years ago

[…] Dr Claire Williams’ article on “Understanding and identifying safe performance” is the second in a series of four articles to be published by SHP online. The article highlights the need to correctly identify the behavioural issues to focus on, and identifies some errors that could be made during this process. The full article can be viewed on […]