The Anatomy of Unsafe Behaviors: It’s Not What You Think | SOS Podcast

The Anatomy of Unsafe Behaviors: It’s Not What You Think | SOS Podcast

Safety management systems have evolved with time and great advancements have been made in injury prevention efforts.  That said, employees still take short cuts and routinely engage in at-risk behaviors that defy training and clearly conveyed performance expectations.  In this podcast episode, host Joe White explains why this occurs and offers research-based advice on how to most effectively address it.






The SOS podcast is a production of AEU Lead, an organization redefining how mid and frontline managers are developed.

Joe White:

Hello, and thank you for joining us. I'm Joe White, and this is the Supervisor Skills: Secrets of Success podcast. Today's episode is our first release in more than a month. Having taken a late summer break, I'm glad to be back and look forward to picking up momentum again for our final stretch in season three.

In today's episode, we're discussing workplace safety. As part of the information I'll be sharing with you, I plan to address a common question I often receive. The question is, why don't employees just follow the rules? A common point of frustration for company executives, safety professionals, and regulatory authorities, employees routinely engage in at-risk behaviors that defy training and clearly stated expectations involving workplace safety. The answer to this question is important and offers insight into how we can improve safety performance over time. That said, let's jump right into it.

In a recent workshop, I asked participants to define in their own words the term unsafe behaviors. The list of keywords and descriptors offered in response followed a routine pattern, one I've seen over and over during the 15 years I've run the exercise. Willful disregard to safety and wellbeing, reckless behavior, discord, careless, complacent, negligent, non-compliant, and so on. Immediately following the discussion, I asked how many had driven to the location safely that day. As expected and as most often the case, every hand in the room raised. One person on this particular occasion even added, "We all got here, didn't we?" The point of the exercise is at the heart of our discussion today. In response to the keywords and descriptors used to describe unsafe behaviors, I compare and contrast them to driving characteristics most demonstrate each and every day. Exceeding posted speed limits, following too closely, running stale yellow lights, rolling through stop signs, and using cell phones while driving are by just a few examples of behaviors commonly observed and often demonstrated while operating a vehicle by our own definition and admission were most often unsafe drivers.

This exercise results in a disorienting dilemma. While most will acknowledge the reference behaviors are by definition unsafe, essentially, no one feels unsafe when performing them. In decision-making, what we think and how we feel about any given situation or circumstance aren't always the same. This has a significant implication on employee behaviors and, subsequently, workplace safety. Employees don't follow rules for the same reasons we don't drive posted speed limits or come to complete stops at stop signs. The behaviors involve some anticipated benefit that outweighs any perceived cost or consequence. As an example, why do we speed? The anticipated benefit involves getting to our destination earlier. Why would someone grab a chair to access an overhead object in lieu of getting a ladder? It's because of convenience. The truth about unsafe acts or at-risk behaviors is that they seldom result in injury. While this is good, it's also bad. If we take a chance for an anticipated benefit that's realized, the behavior is reinforced through experience.

Recent advancements in neuroscience suggest at-risk behaviors may even be intrinsically rewarding as the brain releases dopamine and response to it. All said, at-risk behaviors repeated over time become habits, and as the law of large numbers reminds us, while the likelihood of injury may not be high on any given day, the chances of injury normalize over time and distance. It's for this very reason that some of the most serious injuries and fatalities often involve our most experienced workers. So, what do you do with this information? How do you use it to help improve employee safety? Here are five suggestions I'd like to share:


1. Identify drivers of at-risk behaviors.

Risk and reward exist in direct relation to one another; the higher the risk, the higher the potential reward. We excel in life by taking chances. While this may seem counter to the principles governing workplace safety, it's important to understand what drives human behavior. To reduce the occurrence of at-risk behaviors, we must first step back and try to understand the anticipated benefit driving them. In doing so, we're far better prepared to combat them in a more productive manner.


2. Recognize the role of past experiences

As previously shown, what we think about any given situation or circumstance may not necessarily reflect how we feel about it. This helps explain why behaviors preceding an incident or injury don't always make sense and often appear irrational. Most decisions and subsequent actions reflect past experiences and our feelings involving them. When an employee takes a chance for a perceived benefit that's realized, the likelihood of recurrence goes up over time.


3. Understand the nature of habits.

The science of habits is in its infancy. What is known is that there are three key parts to them: 

  • A cue triggering them
  • A routing in the form of an action or behavior
  • An anticipated reward
At-risk behaviors occurring over time become habits. Once formed, habits are difficult but not impossible to replace. Replacing them begins with a recognized and internalized need to do so. This is a function of leadership dependent upon influence and requires a shift in how the employee feels about the at-risk behavior.


4. Shift perspectives.


Because at-risk behaviors occur for an anticipated gain exceeding any perceived cost or consequence, it's the cost-benefit comparison that must be brought to light. To reduce the occurrence of at-risk behaviors, you must increase the perceived risk involved or decrease the anticipated benefit resulting from it. This is a task beyond the reach of facts and figures. It requires reaching the heart and not the head. Share anecdotal accounts actual experiences, and help the employee understand the why. Most importantly, convey a genuine and authentic sense of caring and tie the needed changes back to something deeply important to the employee.


5. Offer support.


The unfortunate reality is that a single safety contact in response to an at-risk behavior is seldom enough to adequately address it. Because at-risk behaviors develop over time, many occur automatically and without conscious thought or effort. To help employees replace bad habits with new ones takes time. It also requires follow-up and support. Get the employee's agreement on a path forward and routinely check in with them to make certain the changes remain front of mind. This process could take three weeks or more, but the investment in time is well worth the effort where performance improvement is needed.

Workplace safety is at the forefront of responsibilities we each share. Defining performance expectations in the form of work practices, procedures, and standard operating conditions are foundational to any safety culture where high-risk operations exist. These basic building blocks, however, aren't always enough. To more holistically improve workplace safety, we must more effectively account for the human factor. This requires understanding why at-risk behaviors occur and shifting employee perspectives involving them. It's a function of leadership, not management, and is dependent upon influence and not control. Thank you for joining us. It's my sincere hope you found benefit in our discussion today.

Our next podcast is scheduled for release on Tuesday, September 26th. For that episode, we'll be discussing time management. Should you have any questions or need additional information regarding today's topic, just let us know. Our contact information is provided in the show notes accompanying this episode. And for those that may not have reviewed or rated your experience with our show, we would greatly appreciate you doing so. That's it for now. Stay safe, and thanks for listening.

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About the Author

As Director of AEU LEAD, Joe White focuses on helping members transform operational goals into actionable plans through a structured change management process. Prior to joining AEU, Joe was a senior consultant for E.I. DuPont’s consulting division, DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS). He joined DSS in 2011 to develop the next generation of safety practices using extensive research in behavioral sciences he’s compiled over a period of nearly two decades. His efforts resulted in the development of The Risk Factor, which is now the flagship instructor-led offering for the consulting division. Combined, Joe has 26 years of operational safety experience, the majority of which was with DuPont. Joe has been published in Occupational Health & Safety Magazine for his prominent work in safety relative to behavioral and neurosciences and is an event speaker at many leading industry conferences including National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expos, American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and National Maritime Safety Association (NMSA). Joe is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and has a B.S., in Safety and Risk Administration.

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