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Employers behaving badly?

23 January 2013

A campaign by the trade union Unite has raised
questions about the effectiveness of behavioural safety
initiatives. Supporters of such programmes argue that
they can motivate workers to be more proactive in
improving safe

A campaign by the trade union Unite has raised questions about the effectiveness of behavioural safety initiatives. Supporters of such programmes argue that they can motivate workers to be more proactive in improving safety standards but Unite says employers are using behavioural safety to blame workers instead of fixing hazards. Nigel Bryson weighs up the issue

There is no doubt that the greater the level of worker involvement in developing health and safety systems, the greater the improvement in health, safety and business performance.

However many organisations do not have measures in place to effectively engage their workforce. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that 60% of employees are not consulted by their employers over health and safety matters that they should be by law. And consultation is only the start of a process of worker involvement.

If Behavioural Safety improves worker involvement why is the effectiveness of these programmes being questioned? A starting point may be the name: Behaviour Safety. Many people do not like the idea of being told how to behave.

Then there is the history of statements made by the HSE on managing health and safety. Over the last 30 years the HSE has consistently stated in key reports that around 80% of injuries can be attributed to a failure in managerial control.

A key basis of most Behavioural Safety programmes is that up to 96% of workplace injuries are caused through 'unsafe acts' of workers. At face value this appears to conflict with the HSE view based on their investigation expertise. As trade unions generally view the HSE as experts in injury investigation, they see managerial controls as the key issue and train their safety representatives accordingly. This training includes how to effectively function as a representative; risk assessment procedures; how the general principles of prevention defined in law are applied at the workplace; and how to negotiate with managers.

At a basic level in most Behavioural Safety programmes the tasks done by workers are analysed and the 'safe' way of doing things recorded in a checklist.

Workers are then watched by trained observers and 'safe'/'unsafe acts' are recorded. In most programmes the worker is then approached and either commended for their 'safe' working or diplomatically advised how their 'unsafe' behaviour could be modified. The trained observers can come from other workers, supervisors, shop stewards or anybody else who has day to day involvement with the workforce. By having many observations, statistics can be generated on 'unsafe' or 'safe' behaviour.

The training of observers, release from work to undertake observations, analysing data and sustaining such programmes are resource intensive. You must have management commitment, the workforce commitment, the resources, the culture and a strong desire as an organisation to sustain this over many years.

Where Behavioural Safety programmes are going wrong
In research done for the HSE on Behavioural Safety programmes, weaknesses identified included: workers seeing such programmes as blaming them for injuries; a tendency for programmes to concentrate on minor injuries which may mean that causes of major incidents could be missed; the multi-faceted nature of accident causation may be underestimated by simply concentrating on worker behaviour; observable risk taking behaviour may not reveal infrequent high risk acts that could result in serious injury; PPE seems to be the predominant measure that is applied and the least effective in terms of risk control; and it is more likely to be useful on simple behaviours, such as wearing PPE, than more complex tasks such as manual handling.

Unfortunately the list continues: such programmes appear to be geared to conscious human error - violations - and may not be so effective with unconscious errors; and rewarding the absence of unsafe behaviour had frequently been found to generate under-reporting. So it is perhaps understandable that Unite is concerned about this, when they have a more effective approach to worker involvement generally.

I have no doubt that some programmes have worked well, improved worker involvement and reduced injuries. However a lot of Behaviour Safety programmes do not deliver the anticipated results. The trade union concern is that such programmes could distract from the measures that have made their approach so successful at injury reduction across the UK.

In most organisations, it is the overall safety culture that is probably what needs to be addressed. Behavioural Safety is one method that is available and it has a number of weaknesses that have to be addressed if it is going to be effective. A starting point for many organisations could be asking their workforce what they want to improve health and safety standards in their work.

Nigel Bryson runs Bryson Consulting. For more information on Bryson Consulting and information on Nigel's new book 'Zero Harm', visit: www.workerinvolvement.co.uk