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April 15, 2014

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Dominic Cooper: global insights into behavioural safety

 

An authoritative figure in behaviour-based safety, Professor Dominic Cooper’s presentation at IOSH 2014 in June is one few delegates will want to miss. Nick Warburton caught up with him on his travels.

At 60 years of age, Professor Dominic Cooper shows little sign of slowing down. An industry pioneer in behaviour-based safety (BBS) processes and the brains behind B-Safe Management Solutions, a US-based consulting company that proclaims to help “domestic and international clients achieve world-class safety performance”, the former scaffolder-turned-professor-turned-consultant remains an itinerant figure.

In demand on the global stage, he reveals in an interview conducted via Skype that his career has taken him to the most unlikely of places — the Omani desert and the tropical rainforests of Indonesia to name a few — all in the name of behavioural safety.

His current whereabouts, the Philippines, is far removed from the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester, where at the city’s Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), he undertook his PhD in the late 1980s-early 1990s. It was here, working with other leading thinkers, that Dominic pioneered the use of BBS in the construction industry on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive.

Eschewing academia for his own consultancy B-Safe Ltd in 1992, he started to build his reputation in the health and safety industry as a leading authority on behavioural safety. During the 1990s, he developed a BBS model that underlines the importance of safety leadership.

“If you take a company’s goals, its expectations, the management practices; it is those things that leadership is responsible for on a day-to-day basis that then determines the quality of the safety culture,” he explains.

“We know that if there is a lot of risk in the environment and a lot of hazards, this supresses employee engagement. It supresses a supporting environment, it leads to unsafe behaviour and it leads to an increased incidence rate. The hazard and the risk negate the impact of leadership.”

It is a theme that he will cover in more depth during his presentation at IOSH 2014 in June. The main thrust of his speech, he adds, will be to explore the links between safety leadership, employee engagement and safety performance.

Dominic identifies three forms of leadership — transactional, transformational and servant and says that he is interested to find out from delegates which one they think has the biggest impact on behavioural safety in the workplace.

A chartered fellow of IOSH and a global authority on behavioural safety, it may surprise readers to learn that he started his career in health and safety as a young scaffolder, having previously joined the Royal Engineers at seventeen. Perhaps it is this ability to empathise with the entire workforce, from shop floor up to top-tier management that explains his seemingly meteoric rise. 

IOSH bestowed him with several accolades for his writings on behavioural safety in the 1990s and at the decade’s close Dominic enhanced his reputation further by publishing Improving safety culture: a practical guide. The inevitable move into cyberspace led to an online resource 1; in his own words, the “world’s first free interactive website devoted to behavioural safety”.

America soon beckoned and Dominic was offered two professorships at Indiana University in Bloomington, which he took up in November 2001. He’s remained Stateside ever since but spends much of his time jetting off to far-flung corners of the world. The move across the big pond was something of a culture shock, in more ways than one.

“When I first got to the US, I was talking about safety culture and it wasn’t really on their agenda. Safety leadership was,” he says. “We had OSHAS 18001 and the management of health and safety at work regs but they didn’t really buy in to it at the time.”

While research remains his lifelong passion, arguably Dominic’s made his biggest mark through his consultancy work with B-Safe Management Solutions, which he set up in January 2005.

One of the first significant projects he worked on after leaving Indiana University was for the oil and gas industry in the Middle East, an ExxonMobil venture that employed 47,000 workers from 64 countries.

“On that construction project, which was RGX2, the longest run was 120 million man-hours worked without a single lost time incident and that was implementing BBS across the entire facility,” he recalls. “It was 18 months of my life but a great experience.”

As a seasoned traveller, advising international clients, Dominic has witnessed both the highs and the lows in health and safety practice. Interestingly, he admits that his initial perceptions of certain countries that he had expected to have poor health and safety standards turned out to be quite the opposite.

Asia is a case in point. Here, the prevalence of blue-chip companies like Intel and Chevron has meant that local health and safety managers have been able to cherry pick from the best systems and achieve standards that would put some Western firms to shame. Even so, there are some common problems that he encounters.

“The biggest challenge I find is safety leadership management’s commitment. I think that would be the number one challenge we come across,” he reveals.

While language differences obviously can lead to misunderstandings, Dominic believes a more potentially divisive issue is the impact that local cultures can have on perceptions of safety.

“In the home culture, outside of the workplace, they’ve got this culture that you wouldn’t call a good safety culture but when they are in work, they try and follow the rules and procedures the same as everywhere else,” he explains.

“Yet what they learn in the workplace doesn’t seem to stick when they go back into the local culture. A lot of people think of safety as something that you do in the workplace because the rules and regulations say so but outside they don’t necessarily have to do it.”

Age, or, to be more precise, respect for elders in many cultures is the other big challenge he comes up against.

“In a lot of cultures, if you are older, the younger guys won’t challenge you even if they know what you are doing is wrong because the local culture is that the older you are, the wiser you are,” he explains.

“It goes against all the social mores to challenge the older workers. You find that in the Middle East, Asia, pretty much everywhere outside the western world.”

Dominic insists that wherever B-Safe Management Solutions has worked, it has made a difference to the client’s overall performance. But how exactly has it done this? The short answer, he says, is by putting a structure in place.

Dominic starts by introducing behaviour safety measuring mechanisms for the client to build on. Next, he goes through the history of the facility and tries to find out what the common behaviours are that are causing problems across the different trade or work activities.

“We then cherry pick unsafe behaviours that are appropriate to each of those and put them on checklists so that the workforce knows what it is looking for and we also ask them to take a group approach,” he explains.

He emphasises the importance of this last point. “One thing that most people don’t seem to appreciate in safety across the world is that it is a social activity. It’s not an independent activity. We are all dependent on each other for our wellbeing,” he continues.

“If someone’s taking risks and putting the facility at risk, it’s not necessarily just that person who is going to be injured, it’s the other people too.”

This ‘social activity’ perspective was an approach that Dominic’s team at UMIST had identified in the early 1990s. It’s shaped his work ever since.

At the heart of the BBS processes that he has developed in the intervening years is the importance of giving workers focused feedback that is relevant to each work group.

Dominic explains that when a group carries out work, an individual is tasked with monitoring colleagues’ safety behaviour for 10-15 minute a day over a four-to-six month period. This time period is crucial, he says, because it takes 80 days for behaviour to become a habit.

“The data collected goes into software and then you analyse the data once a week and you give feedback to the work group,” he says.

“They discuss that week’s observations as a work group. You haven’t had an observation until you’ve had a conversation that’s what we say — you need to either praise somebody or coach them or support them or stop the job.”

Anonymity needs to be maintained so workers’ names are not jotted down. “All we are doing is collecting numbers; the number of times people behave safely and the number of times people behave unsafely against the specific behaviours that we have,” he continues.

When Dominic first arrived in the States, he refined his BBS approach after carrying out a component analysis of the literature. The findings of this research showed that if a checklist contained more than 20 behaviours, it would probably not be effective.   

“You’ve got a finite time to do the observations and if there are too many behaviours, people just pencil whip,” he says. “They falsify the results is one way of putting it.”

Dominic insists that management support is integral to the overall picture. Too often, he bemoans, BBS is done at the workforce, not with them.

A few years ago, B-Safe Management Solutions worked on a Shell project in Ireland and developed a process that enabled the oil company to identify the underlying contributors for unsafe behaviour. Managers went out on the front line twice a week and engaged in conversations with the workforce and took part in safety observations.

As a result of this project, Dominic says that he was able to calculate that 60 per cent of the potential serious injuries and fatalities can be attributed to poor job planning. The remaining unsafe behaviour relates to people’s behavioural choices.

“Those two things alone explain most of your potential serious injuries and fatalities,” he says. “By looking at the leadership stuff and by getting the leaders to have the conversations, we can identify when job planning is an issue, where it’s an issue… and you can then focus on that.”

But the bottom line, he concludes, is that all BBS will fail if managers don’t provide feedback to individuals in the work groups.

This leads Dominic on to a potentially sensitive issue — getting buy-in from the trade unions. In recent years, some have been noticeably hostile towards BBS. A former union member, he’s been frustrated by this stance.

“Safety is in the interest of everybody,” he insists. “If there’s one thing that unions should be up for, it is safety however it’s done. They do have a point when the BBS process is used to blame individuals. Also, companies should be fixing the hazards. But to throw out a process that works on the grounds of ideology, that’s nonsense.”

Dominic explains how his consultancy works with clients to create a safety partnership. This, he adds, is absolutely essential for getting a world-class safety culture. It means involving the unions as much as the management and the workforce.

“What everybody seems to forget is that safety is no respecter of rank,” he points out. “It doesn’t matter what level you are in an organisation. You can still die or be injured in a workplace accident. Everybody has an interest.”

It’s an important point and one that prompts a searching question — how do you support and maintain a client’s focus when something does go horribly wrong and there is pressure to maintain productivity?

“When things go wrong, that doesn’t stop everybody else from working safely and producing safely,” he says in response. “When there is pressure on productivity, that is precisely where leadership needs to step up. But if you work safely, you increase productivity.”

Dominic points to research carried out at Southampton University to back this up, which showed that for every 50 per cent improvement that is achieved in safety performance, productivity increased by 12 per cent.

With IOSH 2014 on the horizon, what advice does Dominic give to safety professionals battling to make a difference?

“Stay committed and maintain that consistency of purpose, focus and execution on improving safety no matter what happens,” he advises. “And try and get everyone else to do the same.”

(Further details) Professor Dominic Cooper will be speaking on “Impacting safety culture and safety performance with safety leadership” from 9.15-9.55 at the IOSH 2014 conference, taking place at ExCeL London on 18 June. Visit:  www.ioshconference.co.uk

 

Career highlights

·      BSc in psychology from the University of East London in 1988

·      MSc in industrial psychology from the University of Hull in 1989

·      PhD in occupational/organisational psychology from the University of Manchester in 1992

·      Chief executive of B-Safe Ltd in the UK from 1992-2001

·      Published Improving safety culture: a practical guide in 1998

·      Set up www.behavioural-safety.com

·      Professor of safety education and visiting professor of psychology at Indiana University from 2001-2006

·      Chief executive of B-Safe Management Systems in the US from 2005-present

·      Published Behavorial safety: a framework for success in 2009

·      Published Strategic safety culture roadmap in 2013

 

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