Jun 20, 2012 / by Alisa Hafen / No Comments

“Some people often behave unsafely because they have never been hurt before while doing their job in an unsafe way”:
‘I’ve always done the job this way’ being a familiar comment.

This may well be true, but the potential for an accident is never far away as illustrated by various accident triangles. Heinrich’s triangle, for example, suggests that for every 330 unsafe acts, 29 will result in minor injuries and 1 in a major or lost time incident.

Over an extended period of time, therefore, the lack of any injuries for those who are consistently unsafe is actually reinforcing the very behaviors that in all probability will eventually lead them to be seriously injured. The principle being illustrated here is that the consequences of behaving unsafely will nearly always determine future unsafe behavior, simply because reinforced behavior tends to be repeated.

Although it is not unusual to find the continuation of unsafe behaviors being supported by more than one ‘reinforcer’, some will exert stronger effects on peoples’ behavior than others.

This is particularly the case for ‘reinforcers’ that are soon, certain and positive.

Smokers, for example, find it hard to stop because the consequences of smoking are soon (immediate), certain (every time) and positive (a nicotine top up), whereas the negative consequences (e.g. lung cancer) are late (some years away) and uncertain (not every smoker contracts or dies from lung cancer).

In exactly the same way, employees will find it hard to follow certain safety rules and procedures if they are consistently (certain) rewarded by an immediate (soon) timesaving that achieves extra production (positive) by behaving unsafely.

What would you do, for example, if you were faced with a ten to fifteen minute period to put on the correct clothing and equipment to enter a mandatory PPE area to read a gauge that takes only 10 seconds? In some instances, the actual workflow process also reinforces peoples’ unsafe behaviour. By way of example, supermarket ‘shelf’ stackers were required to replenish freezers with frozen foods.

Warehousemen fully load five-foot high, three-sided meshed trolleys with large cartons of frozen foods. The stackers push the trolleys from the warehouse and transfer the individual packages into the appropriate freezer.

Unfortunately, no provision was made for the storage or disposal of empty cartons. To ensure customer access to the surrounding freezers, while also avoiding the creation of tripping hazards, the stackers were forced to place all the empty cartons on the top of the trolley at the rear.

This particular unsafe behaviour had the potential to injure both customers and stackers due to the trolley tipping over when the last carton was removed from the trolley because of the additional, unbalanced, weight.

Nevertheless, it soon became part of the stackers normal way of working, because their behavior was always (certain) reinforced immediately (soon) by getting their job done (positive) to maintain sales volume.

Unsafe behavior is sometimes further reinforced by line managers turning a blind-eye, or actively encouraging employees to take short-cuts for the sake of production.

Unfortunately, this has negative effects that are not always immediately apparent:

First, employees learn that unsafe behavior pays;

Second, it wastes resources as the very behaviors that companies spend a lot of time, money and effort trying to eradicate are reinforced; and third, by condoning unsafe behavior, line managers are transmitting conflicting messages that undermines employee’s confidence in the whole of management’s commitment to safety.

Any behavior, whether safe or unsafe, that is reinforced will be maintained. It is therefore absolutely necessary that we reinforce safe behavior, after all, this is the hallmark of a caring organization.

“It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to.” ~Annie Gottlier