Author Bio ▼

Dr Nick Bell is a Chartered Fellow of IOSH and a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management.Nick supports Principal Designers and construction Clients to comply with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM). He delivers accredited CDM training and has been advising on construction projects up to £3.2bn in value..In October 2018 Nick successfully defended his PhD thesis in which he examined the association between worker engagement and behaviour.  His work has attracted interest from across the globe.  He is now Managing Director of Workfulness Ltd and continues his CDM-related work.
March 1, 2017

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Saving the soul of safety

Nick Bell presents a personal view of behavioural safety – This article was first published in May 2016.

“The behaviourist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognises no dividing line between man and brute.” Watson (1913, p. 158)

head-1292294_960_720Max is my dog. With treats and praise I trained him to sit and lie down on command.  However, he ‘yips‘ when he sees his lead being taken off the peg.  I’ll turn my back on him and withdraw the collar until he stops.  He is now yipping less and less.

These are basic, behaviourist techniques. Recently Andrew Sharman [1] gave a background to behavioural safety and its links to behaviourism.    If you’ve had disagreements with someone about how to behave towards a pet, child or worker, I suspect that lurking in the background are fundamental disagreements about why humans (or pets) behave the way they do.  Behaviourism offers just one explanation.  My own, potted history of behavioural safety will explain how it differs from other traditions and why I have an issue with it.

The early behaviourists applied scientific methods to the observation, prediction and control of behaviour. They had no interest in beliefs and perceptions, partly because their theories and philosophy were a response to the ‘unscientific’ psychoanalytic tradition (Freud, Jung etc.).

Infamously, Watson (a founding father of behaviourism) trained Albert, an infant, to be terrified of a mouse by hitting a steel bar whenever he presented the rodent. This is classical conditioning, the same technique Pavlov used to get dogs drooling when he rang a bell.  This episode and Watson’s quote, above, illustrates his belief that we should use the same techniques to train animals and humans.


From behaviourism to behavioural safety

Behaviourism evolved in the century since Watson wrote ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it’ in 1913 [2]. Burrhus Skinner described himself as a radical behaviourist because he did consider that our inner world is important but believed thoughts and feelings were conditioned through rewards and sanctions in exactly the same way as behaviour.  He called his theory ‘operant conditioning’.

Behavioural safety applies operant conditioning to safety and involves changing what precedes a behaviour and, in particular, changes the consequences which drive our behaviour.

If someone approaches a noisy area and sees a hearing protection sign, a supervisor, an earplug dispenser and a poster of someone amazing wearing earplugs (stimuli/antecedents), they might insert the earplugs (response/behaviour) because they associate the behaviour with reinforcers/consequences (e.g. less discomfort from noise, praise from the boss and feeling cool).

The HSE describe these “behavioural modification” techniques [3,4] and cautions us that they have pros and cons [5]. For example, if we focus heavily on people wearing hearing protection, we might forget the principles of prevention (e.g. finding less noisy equipment) [6,7].  Gathering lots of data about frequent, easy-to-observe behaviours usually does little to prevent catastrophic industrial incidents [5,8,9].  Rules can also quickly become outdated and aren’t always safe [5,10,11].

Through my Masters Degree dissertation I investigated football card systems used by major contractors. These were occasionally described as behavioural safety schemes but were typically just disciplinary tools (as the HSL also found [12]).

A positive perspective

Leicester City football club or the likes of Google don’t, I suspect, break the mould and achieve remarkable results by tightly controlling behaviour. Sydney Dekker argues that, in relation to safety, we likewise need to instil a sense of purpose in our team, increase capabilities and give people confidence and discretion in choosing how to apply those skills [8] (especially when facing very dynamic or novel situations).  This is, incidentally, the approach of transformational leaders [13].  Dekker is critical of behavioural safety [14] and the “mental Ice Age of behaviourism” [15] (pg 186).

My beliefs were shaped by humanistic psychologists, such as Carl Rogers, then positive psychology which developed in the late 90’s (so called because it helps people lead a fulfilled life, rather than fixes them). From this perspective, human behaviour is driven by a desire to reach our potential.  Ultimately, we want to be autonomous and creative, be part of something bigger than ourselves and to excel.  Dekker seems pretty positive, describing workers as solutions rather than problems to be managed [14].

Coaching has much in common with humanistic and positive psychology [16,17], treating people as individuals and helping them to gain self-insight and set personally-meaningful goals. We respect, develop and help people direct their inherent capabilities to plan and find solutions.  This also gives us a platform to discuss and better understand psychological health and mental well-being.

When a behaviourist talks to someone, they instead diagnose how, from that person’s perspective, behaviours are rewarded or sanctioned. The safety behaviourist considers risk perception, the social environment and safety culture:  If these are ‘poor’, the person won’t expect safe behaviours to be rewarded and may even be punished with ridicule etc.  The behaviourist adjusts the blend of reinforcement and sanctions to fix problematic behaviours and secure compliance with standards.

To me, this seems soulless. Is that how we want loved ones to be managed?  On the other hand, why should an employer help workers reach their potential?  Morally, it feels right, but my on-going PhD research suggests that this is how we fully engage hearts, heads and hands in work, creating a win-win situation for everyone.


Know thyself

Behavioural safety offers a systematic approach for identifying risky behaviours and developing, and reinforcing, safe systems of work. It promotes collaboration and worker involvement.  Managers learn that undesirable behaviours aren’t usually due to negligence or ‘wickedness’ and their own behaviours (e.g. how they communicate with workers) are an aspect of these interventions [4,12,18].  I wonder if the improved insights and collaboration are the real power behind these programs rather than behavioural modification.

If you strongly react to behavioural safety, one way or the other, I suspect you share or disagree with the underlying assumptions it makes about people and the reasons for our behaviour. It may be interesting to reflect on your own beliefs:  Do these explain your approach to health and safety and to people in general?


After completing his degree in Psychology in the early 1990’s, Nick began working in a project offering support and advice to young people during which time he took further courses in counselling and transactional analysis. He then worked and trained as a Social Worker before joining the Ministry of Justice as a Probation Officer.  Eventually he was invited to be part of a Public Protection unit, supervising high risk offenders.  He used a range of cognitive-behavioural interventions to help offenders gain insights into, and empower them to change, unhelpful patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour.  In 2002 he took a sideways move into Health and Safety.  He went self-employed 18 months ago as he explained in his recent ‘lone wolf’ article 

Nick is a Chartered Fellow of IOSH and a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management.

Through his on-going PhD Nick is examining how worker engagement can be used to improve health and safety performance.


  1. Sharman, A., 2016. In pursuit of safety. SHPonline.
  2. Watson, J. 1913. Psychology as the Behaviourist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177
  3. The Keil Centre, 2001. Behaviour modification programmes establishing best practice, Offshore Technology Report 2000/048.
  4. The Keil Centre, 2002. Strategies to promote safe behaviour as part of a health and safety management system, Contract Research Report 430/2002.
  5. HSE, Human factors: Behavioural safety approaches – an introduction (also known as behaviour modification)
  6. Hopkins, A., 2006. What are we to make of safe behaviour programs? Safety Science, 44, 583-597.
  7. Unite the Union, Beware Behavioural Safety.
  8. Youtube, Sidney Dekker – Safety Differently Lecture,
  9. Zohar, D., Luria, G., 2003. The use of supervisory practices as leverage to improve safety behaviour: A cross-level intervention model. Journal of Safety Research, 24, pp.567-577
  10. Alper, S., Karsh, B., 2009. A systematic review of safety violations in industry, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 41, 739-754
  11. Hudson, P., 2007. Implementing a safety culture in a major multi-national. Safety Science, 45, 697-722.
  12. Health and Safety Laboratory, 2008. Behaviour change and worker engagement practices within the construction sector, RR660.
  13. Bell, N., Powell, C., Sykes, P., 2015. Transformational health and safety leadership. Safety and Health Practitioner, April. Available online at:
  14. Dekker, S., 2014. Employees: A problem to control or solution to harness. Professional Safety, 32-36.
  15. Dekker, S. W. A., & Nyce, J. M. (2015). From figments to figures: Ontological alchemy in human factors research. Cognition, Technology & Work, 17(2), 185-187.
  16. Gregory, J., Levy, P., 2012. Humanistic/Person-centered Approaches. Passmore, J., Peterson, D., Freire, T. (eds.) The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Coaching and Mentoring, Wiley-Blackwell.
  17. Seligman, M., 2007. Coaching and Positive Psychology, Australian Psychologist, 42(4), 266-267.
  18. SHP Online, Video: Safety Performance Indicators with Dominic Cooper,

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Andrew Sharman
Andrew Sharman
7 years ago

Excellent article, thanks Nick!

7 years ago

Nick, What about the work on Just Culture by James Reason? Any BBS approach based on that model automatically puts empathy with the workforce to the forefront. (In fact there are several clips on this site championing that approach by Tim Marsh and Dominic Cooper)

Steve Moore
Steve Moore
7 years ago

Fascinating article Nick. I share your views. I’d love to discuss your work with you. We’re rolling out a cultural growth program in my company that is all about respect for the individual, community, and the leader’s role in creating the environment for these to flourish. I’ll try to make contact with you through nickbellrisk

Vicki Humphreys
Vicki Humphreys
7 years ago

Carrot over stick every time. Quite a few BBS articles over on the Talking of Safety blog ( too for those interested.

Noel Pilling
Noel Pilling
7 years ago

A lot of really good things here for the progressive employers who want to make a difference, enhance worker well being and their development and make them into real company assets. Regrettably far too many employers exist that still don’t care unless the stick is waved and used. Whistle blowing and “complaining /asking” managers to support their needs (even for basic PPE) is too often ignored as one of my family is discovering whilst working for a high end, high profile company. If H&S is not on the agenda at the top, understood and part of the fabric of the… Read more »