What really drives safety

What really drives safety

One of the key factors in embedding a resilient safety culture is having employees who are alert, vigilant in taking the necessary precautions and focused on working safely. In short, we need people who are switched on

It is a common shared statistic that between 90 and 95 percent of all accidents can be attributed to human error. It makes sense, therefore, to have a safety strategy that focuses on getting workers to be more committed and take responsibility for their safety.

We could expect to see significant progress in our safety records if our personnel would just be more aware of their surroundings; constantly seeking potential hazards and taking the necessary precautions and actions to reduce or illuminate risks.

While this is true, it is missing a key component. We first have to answer the question: What drives human behaviour?

David Rock has popularised the “iceberg” metaphor. He explained that the safety culture of a company is the product of the collective set of habits of its workforce. It is understandable that leaders target people’s behaviour in an attempt to see the results they are looking for. Appropriate actions lead to required outcomes.

Many behaviour-based programmes have this philosophy. Unfortunately, it isn’t that straightforward, because our conduct is fuelled by our emotions, which, in turn, are driven by our thoughts and beliefs.

The focus on results is practical because results are easy to identify and measure. However, the emotions and thinking that influences one’s actions are often downplayed, or ignored, because they are not as tangible or obvious. Yet, it is these “below the surface” subtleties that are the true contributors to employee’s behaviour. For leaders to be effective influencers of their team’s functioning, it is vital that they to delve “below the water” to the deeper makeup of their people.

Rock summarised: “Our [safety] performance depends upon our behaviour, which is guided by our emotions, which are triggered when our thoughts (beliefs, habits, memories, assumptions, and so on) interact with certain situations in our daily life.” It is only when we address this dynamic that we will see the dedication towards safety we so earnestly desire.

What really drives safetyLet me share a personal story that will drive home the point. Recently, I was having dinner with an entrepreneur who was eager to do business with me. Getting ready for the evening I was in the men’s bathroom, or so I thought, washing my hands. I was upbeat about the evening as I knew it would be a success. As I was drying my hands, a lady walked in. Immediately my whole demeanour changed.

Upon seeing her, I went from being bold and confident to being confused. Looking around it became apparent that I was in the ladies’ restroom. In another split second my state of mind changed again – this time to one of total embarrassment as I scurried out of there. In one instant my disposition had switched. Instead of walking out with a feeling of self-assurance, I rushed out feeling like I had egg on my face.

What brought about such radical transformation? It was merely a new thought! In essence nothing had changed. The bathroom hadn’t changed, nor had the basin in which I was washing my hands. I was still in the same restaurant where I had been certain of a fruitful evening. One moment I was calm and collected, because I believed I was in the comfort of the gents’ restroom. The realisation that my assumption was wrong, however, drove my urgency to get out of there.

While this is a simple analogy, is it possible that we have ideas concerning safety and performance that are misplaced? The dynamics of changing people’s outlook and commitment towards safety lies in shifting unhelpful hardwired attitudes, perceptions and beliefs.

That new thought I had released a completely different set of emotions that triggered another set of behaviours. The challenge faced by leaders isn’t to control how employees work, but to help them embrace a fresh mindset when it comes to safety. Such adjustments in these areas will manifest in the “above the water” behaviours.

However, before we endeavour to try to influence our workforce, it is paramount that we define what we want them to believe. It needs to go beyond vague and elusive concepts like “zero harm”. It has to be more comprehensive than a list of general values hanging on a wall.

It is a prerequisite that we first solidify our own thinking in terms of what fundamental beliefs are required to have a robust safety culture. Do we know precisely what types of attitudes will make a significant difference in daily practices? We may also want to ask ourselves: What is it in our current culture that is preventing this? More importantly: Are we willing to address them?

In addition, nothing sets the tone for the safety culture more clearly than having leaders who are role models. We will never succeed in persuading our employees if we don’t practise what we preach. What we do carries more weight than what we say.

This is most true when we are under pressure, or when things go wrong. It is the decisions, instructions, the manner of communicating and actions in these situations that reveals our position towards safety. If, at any stage, a leader even suggests that safety can, or should, be neglected; the message is resoundingly clear – safety isn’t a core value.

When a manager quickly cancels the time allocated to discuss safety, because of the pressing need to get his people into the field, he is sending a strong message that safety isn’t a priority.

On the other hand, when a supervisor calls his team aside and says: “Today we are under immense pressure, but let’s take the time to go through today’s tasks to ensure that what we do is done safely,” the message is unmistakable – we don’t compromise on safety.

All of these random little acts inform people about the real attitude towards safety. Over time, workers become confident that management is serious about safety, and what they are doing is not mere lip service. It isn’t long before safety becomes an entrenched culture. Such dedication to safety reinforces the understanding that working safely is truly celebrated.

Probably the most pertinent questions to ask are: What do I believe about safety? How important is it to me personally? What adjustments do I have to make in my own thinking? What unintended messages am I sending? How am I going to intentionally and proactively influence the opinions of my team?


Dr Brett Solomon is a principal consultant at Sentis, and has been involved in numerous safety culture change initiatives with progressive thinking organisations such as Anglo American, Glencore Alloys, PPC and Aveng Moolmans. Currently he is working closely with BHP in South Africa and Impala Platinum.

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Malc Staves, corporate health and safety director of L'Oréal, is passionate about improving safety.
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