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How to build a behavioural safety culture

27 August, 2020
The Safety Game for Medina illustration of oil rig and forklift at work

We recently explained what behavioural safety means and why it is important in business. If you are not sure what behavioural safety is and why it matters, have a quick look at that article to bring yourself up to speed before reading more about how to build a behavioural safety culture.

All jobs within an organisation carry an element of risk. Some are obvious, life-threatening risks, such as working at height, working with heavy machinery or dealing with harmful substances.  However, there are many more medium to low risk activities going on out there that may be overlooked. Nobody should ever underestimate the impact of ongoing, low-risk activities on their workforce. Even someone sitting in an office all day can suffer from RSI, eye strain, or long term health problems associated with poor air quality or lack of exercise. Your organisation’s safety culture needs to take all risks into account, no matter how insignificant they may seem. A behavioural safety approach means that every member of staff is encouraged to take responsibility for their own behaviours and those around them. Everyone looks out for everyone else.

Why you need a strong behavioural safety culture

As we said before, behavioural safety is a proven and effective way of positively impacting safety behaviour, thereby reducing or eliminating accidents and dangers to long term health. To work effectively, it has to become part of your organisation’s culture. It also needs to involve every person within the organisation. Every individual should feel involved in the process. They then take ownership of it, inspiring best practice in themselves and others rather than just complying. Operational and safety excellence tend to go hand in hand. So, organisations with a strong safety culture tend to manage their operations well too.

Where to start

Any health and safety programme must, by law, seek to remove or reduce risk before anything else. A behavioural safety culture is not just a case of someone at the top handing out a set of safety rules. It needs to focus on the whole health and safety process and how everyone fits into it, not the end point of a chain of events. It should look first at critical decisions such as work speeds, productivity levels, shift patterns and staffing levels. Decisions made at boardroom level can have more impact on injury rates than one individual’s actions.

Use your data

Your organisation will have accumulated data on all accidents and injuries. Harvest this data and use it to identify the types of accidents and injuries that occur, where and how they happen and how serious they are. You should end up with a pyramid of minor, medium, major and critical events. That is to say, a higher rate of minor accidents forming the base, leading up to a much smaller number of serious or fatal injuries at the apex. Then investigate each one closely to identify any specific unsafe behaviours that need to change. Understanding mistakes and how they happen is key to modifying behaviours. Do you also have data on near misses? If so, it is equally important to go through the same process of identifying behaviours that almost led to accidents.

Behavioural safety. Top to bottom or bottom to top?

This is a good question. After all, who better to understand what happens on the ground than the people on the ground? But those at the top tend to have a better overall picture. The answer is that a successful behaviour-based safety culture goes both ways. There has to be an exchange of information, ideas and input. The important thing is that every member of staff, at all levels, should be involved in the process. People have a genuine interest in their own safety and wellbeing and, on the whole, that of their colleagues. They contribute best when they engage and take ownership. So, when the health and safety management team have crunched the data and identified potential at-risk behaviours, it is time to measure each risk and work out how to replace unsafe behaviours with safe ones. Many organisations are surprised at the valuable insights and innovative solutions put forward by their staff. But they are a powerful resource. When they have been part of the decision making process, it is far easier to introduce a new, safe system of work. So, encourage staff to identify the risks involved in their particular job. Then ask them what could be done to eliminate or reduce those risks.

No room for a blame culture

It must be made clear that this is not ‘snitching’ and there should be no fear of judgement or reprisals. It is a process of gathering information to gain a better insight and find a successful way forward. It relies upon trust and support in both directions. Staff may well criticise how things have been done in the past, but only if they know they will be listened to and not punished for saying it. Be ready for that. Listen, take on board what is said and be prepared to act on it. A culture of behavioural safety cannot be created if there is a blame culture in place. In a culture that genuinely believes in behavioural safety, there is no such thing as a whistleblower. You simply have staff who are comfortable that they can point out risks, unsafe behaviours or a better way of doing things.

Building a behavioural safety culture takes time

There will always be some resistance in the early stages. It can take time for staff to believe that there will be no reprisals for speaking out. If they are used to being told what to do and how to behave, it can feel uncomfortable when they are suddenly asked for their opinions. Results are rarely instantaneous. Building a behavioural safety programme is a long term, ongoing process. It relies on a continuous feed of information from bottom to top and back again. Only then will you have a constantly evolving system, leading to sustainable change.

Punishment vs Reward

Should an organisation punish bad behaviour or reward good behaviour? Blame and punishment are usually counter-productive. Of course there must be consequences for wilful bad behaviour. However, this often overlooks the fundamental attitudes or accepted practices that have led to an accident. These can be rooted deep within an organisation’s culture. It is usually more productive to reward safe behaviour, ideas and innovations. This doesn’t just encourage those good behaviours, it also discourages unsafe behaviours when others see that their efforts, too, could be recognised and rewarded. Reward leads to a happier, less fearful workforce. This alone can lead to better staff retention – and you then have a loyal workforce who understand your culture and values, passing this on to new employees. They become your behavioural safety ambassadors, if you like.

The Safety Game

The Big Picture People are experts in behavioural health and safety training, helping to align your ongoing strategy with your company culture. Our bespoke Learning Maps and Interactive Board Games are an upbeat, interesting way for your organisation to provide behavioural safety training across your workforce. They break down barriers and positively encourage interaction and everyday, adult conversation at all levels within the organisation. Your own bespoke Safety Game makes your safety culture approachable and, above all, fun. These are tools aimed at adventurous, innovative Health and Safety managers who recognise that their staff are a vital part of any safety programme/solution. The Safety Game is a proven mechanic to consolidate your organisation’s brand, themes and culture, aligning them alongside your safety strategy. Call us to find out how a bespoke Safety Game could help you build a new, behavioural safety culture.

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