Influencing employee behaviour

03 June 2014

All workplaces have the potential to put the health and safety of employees at risk, but employee behaviour is often a major contributing factor too. Understanding that many injuries and deaths in the workplace can be attributed to human behaviour is important for any business seeking to improve health and safety standards, says Mary Clarke.

Companies can enhance performance through an understanding of the effects of teamwork, tasks, equipment, workspace, culture, organisation on human behaviour and abilities, and the application of that knowledge in the work environment.
Human behaviour is a contributory factor to workplace injuries and deaths and often a result of employees’ misunderstanding aspects of their role or making mistakes. In our 30 years’ experience of assessing workforce competence around the world, we have evidenced that around 30% of any workforce don’t fully understand key aspects of their role.
Last year, there were two rail disasters in mainland Europe. In Paris six people died and more than a hundred were injured in a high speed crash outside Paris in July and in Spain, just two weeks later, 79 people were killed in a crash outside Santiago de Compostela.
In the Paris incident, the driver was praised for his quick reactions that prevented more deaths and injuries, whilst in the Spanish crash, the driver was reported to be on the phone at the time of the crash and therefore was considered to be at fault.
So how do you gain an understanding about how employees ‘likely’ behaviour in any given work scenario can assist in the management and reduction of health and safety risks?
One effective way to do this is by regularly measuring how people perform and behave at work using situational judgement assessments that correlate people’s understanding and confidence. Such assessments provide insight into what an individual truly knows, how confident they are using their knowledge and highlight gaps in knowledge, as well as areas of high confidence – which is where potential risks lie. The gaps can then be addressed with targeted training interventions to improve performance and reduce risk.
This new approach to identifying and measuring people risk is being adopted across many industries including Rail and Utilities, as well as in the NHS.
A leading NHS trust recently introduced such assessments in its obstetrics department to assess the competence and confidence of midwives and other clinical staff in a simulated training environment. 
The Trust’s goal was to improve patient safety and reduce the number of serious case incidences. To achieve this, it needed a better understand of the training needs of medical staff as well as more insight into the effectiveness of its training and areas to improve.
A specialist online assessment tool was created to evaluate the performance of midwives and doctors in simulated acute clinical situations. Individuals were assessed in how they behave  - including the quality of their communication skills, their decision making and ability to spot risks, their handover to other colleagues, their approach to patient care and how they escalate situations. The assessments provided insight into the knowledge, likely behaviour and confidence of individuals and teams working in different scenarios.
One trainer at the Trust said: "Assessing an individual’s competency and level of confidence, helps weed out those ‘dangerous characters that don’t really understand things’. It also gives you the opportunity to spot somebody who isn’t lacking in knowledge but lacks the confidence to apply it.  You can target training to build knowledge and coach and mentor to improve confidence.”
This approach to assessing how people behave at work and identifying risks is being widely adopted in many industries where health and safety and compliance are critical. In the rail industry it is being used to ensure frontline staff such as drivers, engineers and signallers are complying with industry standards for health and safety; in the Utilities sector it is being used to ensure the safety of highway maintenance workers and in the catering and hospitality industries to ensure food safety standards are met.  
In all examples, health and safety standards are compromised when people don’t behave in the right way. Having a way of assessing not only how competent people are, but how they behave in the workplace, and the ability to identity and eradicate risky behaviour can be a major factor in reducing health and safety risks.
Mary Clarke is CEO of Cognisco.