How understanding human behavior can lead to a safer workplace

Sept. 25, 2013
This roundtable discussion explores the evolution of workplace safety.

Because human behavior is such an important ingredient in improving workplace safety and managing loss control exposures, a better understanding of the principles of human behavior will lead to more effective outcomes in the area of workplace safety.

Workplace safety has in the past decade become a very high management priority for most responsible business leaders. Awareness of the workplace safety subject and the technology supporting safety has experienced significant developmental growth in recent years.

Charlie Palmgren, a senior management consultant and executive coach, has spent decades researching, writing, and coaching about organizational development, human behavior, and human transformation. Johan Roels is owner and principal thought engineer at Loss Control Centre Belgium, a consulting business that specializes in safety culture change.

Weigel: In your loss control white paper, titled, “The Risks and Causes of Accidents,” you stated, “Among the practical principles of professional management is the principle of multiple causes.” Would you elaborate on that, please?

Roels: Problems and loss-producing events are seldom if ever the result of a single cause. The idea of integrated loss control aims at the control of hazards, risks, undesired events, and losses. Integrated loss control deals in particular with identifying the multiple causes of those undesired events and strives to minimize the effects of them. The principle of multiple causes recognizes the complexity of the event chain that leads to accidents. The main difference between a risk and a cause is that the cause is an element of the past once that undesired event has happened, and a risk is an element of both the present and the future until the undesired event happens. So if you wait long enough, every risk eventually becomes a cause. Therefore the principle of multiple causes/risks is an essential principle for loss control management.

To learn more about workplace safety, read Electrical workplace safety training is the best insurance money can buy

Weigel: In that same white paper, you have a section titled, “Management Responsibilities.” Would you please elaborate on management responsibilities involved within the loss control system?

Roels: Management has to create and manage its loss control system and the standards that support it and also provide for the necessary means to enable it. Management not only plans and organizes the work to be done to meet those standards, it also evaluates results, identifies needs, and corrects and commends performance. This is the essence of management control. This also means that management is responsible for continuous improvement of the loss control system by adding system activities and by specifying adapted standards of criteria. Adequate standards are essential for adequate control. Lack of compliance to those standards is a common reason for lack of control.

Developing an adequate loss control system and standards are an executive function, aided by supervisors. Maintaining compliance with those standards is a supervisory function, aided by executives. It is a management team effort all the way.

Weigel: Workers seem to have the most at risk as they perform their assigned duties. How can workers best be convinced that their safety is critical, and how do you change behavior that may be potentially unsafe?

Palmgren: Mr. Roels suggested that loss control management must take a multi-causal approach when developing a safer workplace. You stated that accidents that cause human injury and fatality almost always are initiated by some unintentional human error. And if, as you suggest, electrical accidents always result from a lack of awareness, it becomes imperative that leaders, managers, and supervisors become more safety-minded or mindful. The obvious devil in the details is how you help people change the way they think. The short answer is, you don’t. They must see the value of such a change and be willing to pay the price it takes to keep the change. That price is the willingness to learn new habits of thinking and becoming aware.

Each individual must take responsibility for changing his or her own mind, which, in this case means, choosing to become more safety-minded. Without a change in thinking there will be little or no change in the way the leaders, managers, or workers behave. Increasing behavioral safety will be mostly rhetoric, rather than achieving improved safety behavior.

Weigel: It seems that talking about safety is a popular pastime today, and the term “safety culture” is often spoken but seldom achieved. What is the missing ingredient that is needed to change safety behaviors?

Palmgren: The new paradigm needs management and workers to accept together their responsibilities and to work together to find the underlying multi-causes of accidents or other undesired events. In addition to planning, organizing the work, meeting the standards, evaluating results, identifying needs, correcting and commending performance, executives and managers must model and live the safety behavior they proclaim. Employees must not only hear about the value of safety behavior, they benefit most when they can see and above all experience that behavior in the workplace. Enough has been written and said about safety behavior. The time has come for transforming wishful thinking into safety-mindedness. That is the true prerequisite for achieving continual workplace safety improvement.

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