Passionate About Safety – Influencing Employee Behavior for Safer Performance

How do we influence employees to make the best choices when it comes to safety? CEC’s Vice President of Safety, Keith Robinson dives into how actions and consequences (both good and bad) can influence behavior and what we can do to steer employees in the right direction.

Podcast Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to CEC Explains, your deep dive into fascinating subjects from the worlds of engineering and the environment, brought to you by Civil and Environmental Consultants. And now, from our CEC studios around the nation. This is CEC Explains.


Keith: Hi, my name is Keith Robinson, and I am CEC’s vice president of safety. I am a certified Safety Professional with more than 30 years experience in the occupational safety and health field, both from a consulting as well as a manufacturing perspective. And I’m going to talk today about a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. It is titled “Passionate About Safety: Influencing Employee Behavior for Safer Performance.”


So, the first thing we want to start off with here is that employees don’t want to be unsafe. It is not their intention to get hurt. However, things happen, and so how do we as leaders influence our employees to make sure that they’re making the best choices? And we have a lot of ability to impact our employees in how they go about doing that. And so, you know, to start, we really need to understand what things can influence an individual’s behavior, and there is a behavioral science topic out there called the ABC model. It’s antecedents, or activators, behaviors, and consequences, and how all three of those work together to make sure to provide a good way for an individual to work with another person and try to get the behavioral choices that they want made.


So, we start with activators/antecedents, the first thing that’s up, and the activator or antecedent is a person, place, thing, or event that occurs before behavior, and it can either encourage it or trigger that behavior. And so, some of the common workplace activators you see would be training. Training tells you here’s the information I have. Do I want to do a behavior this way or that way? Do I want to wear personal protective equipment or not? Labels/warning signs, if I’m walking into an area and there’s a sign on the wall that says, you know, “Noise hazard behind here. Wear ear protection.” Well, that’s an activator or an antecedent that is trying to encourage me to make the choice to wear earplugs before I go into a particular area. So, I can protect myself.


One thing to keep in mind with every activator is that they can be strong or weak, and so I’m going to give an example. If you’re reading a document about a chemical, and it says, “This is an extremely dangerous chemical. Wear proper PPE.” Is that a strong activator or not? Well, I maintain that it’s not because what does extremely dangerous mean? For someone like me, who’s worked around chemical safety for decades, telling me it’s extremely dangerous is one thing versus someone whose first time exposure to it could be something else, and their perspectives are different. “Wear proper PPE.” Well, what’s proper? I don’t know. A better, stronger activator would be something along the lines that says, “Sulfuric acid is a corrosive chemical that can cause burns to skin and eyes. Wear butyl gloves, rubber apron, face shield, and goggles when handling.” It’s a much stronger activator because it’s much more specific. It gives a lot more information and prepares the individual to make the proper behavioral choice. It tells me exactly what proper PPE is, and it tells me what it means by extremely dangerous, that it can cause burns to the skin and eyes. So, I can use that knowledge to better prepare myself to hopefully make the right decision in order to protect myself.


The next part of the equation are the behaviors, and behaviors are the observable activities that an individual does. Behaviors are typically predictable, but the problem with behaviors, for the most part, is we really only talk about them when somebody does something wrong, when there’s a problem with them. If someone’s doing the right thing, well, we let them continue to do the right thing, and we go about our day. But if someone makes a mistake, oh, now we’re going to point it out. And so, there’s always a negative connotation when it comes to talking about behaviors that we really need to be careful about.


The other thing to keep in mind is that to the person that’s making that behavioral choice, they’re doing it for a reason. It makes sense to them at that time. It’s not to get hurt. They’re not doing something because they think it’s unsafe, but they’re going to get hurt anyway. There’s a reason why they’re making those choices, and we have to understand that when we need to figure out how we’re going to help them make the right behavioral choice later on. The other thing to keep in mind when it comes to behaviors is that an unsafe behavior is simply a behavior. Unsafe, safe, they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s a behavioral choice that someone makes. It is that activity. It is the result of a normal person reacting to the environment in which they work.


So, why do people get hurt? Why do people choose unsafe behaviors in their workplace? Well, typically, like I said, they don’t do it knowing they’ll get hurt. So, why do they do it? Well, first thing is they don’t have the necessary skill or training. A lot of places I’ve been throughout my career, there’s been a rush to take new employees, and put them into the workplace as soon as possible getting them to contribute to what the company’s mission is, whether it’s producing widgets or providing service to a client. We want to get them out there and contribute to the bottom line of the organization.


Another reason is they don’t use the skills often enough. And when it comes to health and safety, one of the greatest hazards that I’ve been around in my career involves confined space entry. It’s when someone goes into a space, that’s not designed for them to be in there. There could be hazards in the space from hazardous atmospheres or other things, and to be able to safely and legally go into a confined space you need to have training, right? And it needs to be every year. Well, you take that training say in February, but you don’t use that skill until October. Is there a chance that you might have forgotten some of the information that you learned along the way when it comes to taking it 7-8 months ago? Well, absolutely there is. So, if we don’t use those skills often enough, you can have all the training and all the prerequisites legally required, but it can still impact whether or not you can actually safely perform those activities. Another one is we don’t recognize near misses and other instances that are warning us that there is an unsafe potential associated with what’s going on.


Keep in mind, again, something else that can contribute to this is that there are no positive consequences for safe behavior. From an employee’s perspective to work safer is to work harder, and I’ll give you an example of that. Now, it’s a very obvious and kind of overblown example, but let’s say you’re sitting in your office and a light bulb goes out overhead. You can do one of two things. The quick thing, the unsafe thing, is to climb up from your wheeled chair onto your desk and change the light bulb and go back to work. The safe way to do it is to walk two minutes down the hallway. Get a ladder. Walk two minutes back. Climb up the ladder. Change the light bulb. Climb down the ladder. Carry the ladder back two minutes to put it away. Come back to your desk two minutes later. So, the safer way takes longer. There’s more perceived work from the employee’s perspective than just hopping up there and doing it. Employees are not going to typically want to put in this extra perceived effort if they’re not going to get anything out of it. If I’m paid the same no matter how much effort I put into the activity I’m doing, unless there’s something else that’s going to encourage me, I’m going to put the least amount of effort in to get the same result. Well, again, we’ve just talked about how that could be the result of an unsafe behavior. So, we need to use other things, things like positive consequences, positive reinforcement, and encouragement to recognize that perceived extra effort that the employees are doing and encourage them to make those behaviors.


Another thing that can influence employees making an unsafe behavioral choice is unclear management expectations. Let’s say you’re on a manufacturing floor, and you get a call from your customer, and you need 10,000 widgets and you need them right away. Well, as a manager, as a supervisor, you go to your employees. You say, “Okay, guys, we got a call from our biggest customer. We need these 10,000 widgets. We need them shipped out as soon as possible. It’s a big deal. We really need to do this for the client. Let’s go ahead and do it.” Nowhere in that conversation did that supervisor or manager say to the employee, “I don’t care how you do it. Take what shortcuts you need. If you need to work unsafely to get it done, go ahead and do it anyway.” But sometimes employees only hear what you tell them. I know it’s a mixed metaphor, but I like to call that hearing with blinders on. So, they only hear exactly what you say which is it’s important that we get this out. From their perspective, they want to be a good employee. They want to be acknowledged by their manager or supervisor for doing a good job to get the work done. So, they’re going to jump in with both feet, and do everything they can to get that out there. And if in their perspective, it’s well, I need to take a shortcut here, take a shortcut here. But the boss said we got to get this out then they might do that. 


Now counter that with a supervisor or manager that comes in and says, “Guys, we just got an order from our biggest client. 10,000, widgets, we got to get it out there where we’re going to do it safely. You’re going to take the time; you’re going to do it right. You’re going to wear the right PPE, and we’re going to get this job done. Now go ahead and do it.” It didn’t take any extra time, didn’t cost any extra money, but that supervisor or manager clearly described what the expectations were for successful completion of that task. So, if we do that, that will help.


Another reason for unsafe behavior is that there are sometimes physical obstacles associated with work. And a really simple one is safety glasses. If your safety glasses are all scratched up and it’s hard to see or they fog up really easy, you’re going to find them on your forehead, or on your cap, or in your pocket when they need to be on your face doing the job. It’s a very easy one to overcome you go and you ask an employee, “Why are you wearing them up there? Why aren’t you wearing them on your eyes?”

“Well, I can’t see out of it.”

“You know what? I think we can cover the two-to-three-dollar cost of a new pair of safety glasses to make sure that you protect your eyes which are priceless. Let’s go ahead and make that happen.”


And the last reason that I want to talk about for why an employee might choose an unsafe behavior is they don’t believe they’re going to get hurt. We all know employees, you know, especially our younger employees, our less experienced employees, well, they think they’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof because they’re young and strong and powerful. Those of us like me that have a little more gray in the hair and a little more perspective behind you recognize, well, we’re not quite as bulletproof as we think we are. So, an employee, again, is going to do this behavior not believing they’re going to get hurt out of it. So, we really need to make sure they understand how they could possibly get hurt. So that when they’re making their choices, it’s with all the evidence they need, all the information they need, to make a proper, successful behavioral choice.


So, now we move on to the third element of the ABC equation which is consequences. Consequences, very simply, are anything that directly follows a behavior. It can be good, or it can be bad. You could choose a behavior and get hurt. You could choose an unsafe behavior not wearing PPE and get observed by a supervisor and be disciplined for it. You can choose a behavior, do a good job, and get praise and thanks, get a sense of satisfaction. So, it’s one or the other. It’s either a good consequence or a bad consequence based on that behavior.


So, let’s put all three of those components into a very simple model. Okay, and the model is someone calls you and wants you to answer the phone. That’s the behavior that they want to happen. The activator or the antecedent is the phone rings. A consequence is you have to talk to the caller. Which one controls behavior? So, back when my conversation was originated, we did not have as much of the caller ID as we do right now, which kind of complicated this model. But right now, it’s really easy. We have caller ID. The phone rings. You get undisclosed number, or 800 number, telemarketer calling. Or you see that it’s your mother-in-law, or it’s a long-lost friend or a sister or a brother. So, it’s somebody you either do want to talk to or do not want to talk to. Good consequence, bad consequence. 


So, of the activator or the consequence, which one has a greater influence on controlling the behavior of whether you answer that phone or not? Well, the answer there is the consequence. The phone rings. If I don’t know who’s on there, I choose to answer or not answer. It can encourage me to do that behavior, but it’s not going to make me do it. But if I see the consequences, talking to my mother-in-law or a telemarketer, probably not going to answer the phone. If I see it’s a buddy that’s calling me to go out to watch the football game this weekend. I’m probably going to answer it. So, the consequence controls behavior while activators or antecedents have a tendency to influence behaviors.


So, one more consideration to be brought in with this is that each consequence, just like activators are strong or weak, consequences are also strong or weak, and we determine which consequences are strongest by looking at the three components that make up a consequence. The first component is timing. So, a consequence which follows soon after a behavior is going to be stronger than one that occurs later. Example of that is very simple, anybody that’s ever tried to house train a dog. If you watch your dog piddle in the middle of the floor, and you say, “bad dog,” they understand that previous behavior, the piddle, your negative consequences associated with that. However, if you go to work, sometime during the day the dog piddles. You come home. You see it. They’re jumping up; they’re happy to see you. And you see the piddle, and you go, “oh, bad dog.” Well, they’re not connecting that consequence with the behavior of piddling. They don’t know. They just know they’re happy to see you, and you’re telling them bad dog. So, you want those consequences to happen sooner rather than later because again that’s going to have a greater influence on encouraging a proper behavior.


Another component is consistency. Consequences that are delivered consistently after a behavior are stronger than those that are uncertain or unpredictable. And a great example here is driving. If you’re driving down the road, and, you know, let’s throw in something else that you’re late. If you don’t see a police officer around, your foot might tend to push a little more on that gas to get you there. Soon as you see that police officer, you take your foot off the gas dropping down to the speed limit. Why? Why the difference? Well, if I don’t see a police officer, I may not get a ticket. If I do see a police officer, I know I’m probably going to get a ticket. So those consequences that come consistently after a behavior are going to create a stronger influence on them than the ones that happen later that are uncertain if they occur.


And then lastly, the last component of a consequence is significance, and this comes down to positive consequences have a stronger influence on behavior than negative ones. The difference here is much smaller, though. So, if you take every combination of strength, of consistency, and of significance, and you mix them all up. You get everything from soon, certain, and positive to later, uncertain, and negative. So, if we put those on a chart and see which is the strongest, well, strong, strong, strong; soon, certain, and positive is the strongest consequence. And weak, weak, weak; later, uncertain, and negative are the weakest. And if we look at these, one thing that we can say is for all the consequences that are soon and certain, they’re stronger than others, with the exception of soon, certain, and negative. If I know I’m going to get in trouble, that’s going to have a big influence on whether I do something versus, well, I might get in trouble, or I might not whether it’s now or later. So, soon, certain, and positive is the strongest consequence. Soon, certain, and negative is the next one. Then every other strong consequence down the line are all positive consequences with the negative consequences that are later and uncertain being the weakest ones. So, we can use that to help us figure out how to influence behaviors.


So, how does that work? Some very common type ways that managers/supervisors try to get employees to work safely is they say, “If you’re not safe, you’re going to get in trouble,” or, “If you’re not safe, you’re going to get hurt.” Well, let’s look at that. If you’re not safe, you might get hurt. Okay, if – uncertain, might get hurt – uncertain, getting hurt – negative. It’s not now. It’s somewhere down the line. So, it’s later. So, if you don’t work safely, you might get hurt is a later, uncertain, and negative consequence, weakest on the scale. Same thing, if I catch you doing this again, if I catch you working unsafely, I’m going to write you up. Later because it’s not now. It’s uncertain because you got to catch me, and it’s a negative. So, both of those are the weakest consequences, and from the employee’s perspective, those are really weak.


So, how do we use that being weak consequences to try to encourage the behavior we want? Well, we can see that being weak consequences, unless there’s something else going on, unless the boss is looking over my shoulder that that uncertainty turns to certainty, and soon, you know, the later turns to soon because they see me do it. If I’m given the opportunity, unless there are other influences in the culture of the organization, I’m probably not going to follow the rules.


So, let’s put this into another practical example, and this is where we want to encourage an employee to wear a face shield while handling acid. Okay, pretty easy. So, what are the activators, the antecedents, that can influence this behavior of this model? First of all, the availability of a face shield. If you have a face shield available versus one that’s not available, well, that can influence whether or not I’m going to wear one. Peer pressure from your co-workers that either do or don’t wear a face shield can also impact you. “What, you’re going to wear that? Man, you look like a dork. Nobody else wears it,” versus, “Dude, you’re not going to wear it? What are you dumb? You’re going to get hurt. Come on.” So, influence of our peers has the ability to influence us, right? Understanding through training how that facial can protect you. If I know how bad – if I get that acid on my face and oh, no, it’s burning my eyes. If I know that, I’m more likely to choose a behavior than if I’m ignorant of what the outcomes of getting splashed with it are.


Cleanliness of the face shield is also a big deal. In my past, I worked at chemical manufacturing facilities that, in an effort to save a few bucks, decided to share some personal protective equipment among employees from shift to shift. Part of that sharing was a face shield, and I can tell you after one guy is wearing a face shield for eight to 10 hours, if you have to put that same face shield on, right after that individual, sweat on the inside of the headband, perspiration, a general sense of breathing in their breath, where it will all have a negative impact on whether or not you wear that face shield, right? Whereas if you give them a clean one or you know what’s yours and you maintain it, then you’re more likely to wear it. And the last one goes back to that training. It’s that perception of injury risk. So, all those things are activators or antecedents that can influence the behavior that we want to have.


So, what are the consequences? Well, there’s a few of them, threat of injury or threat of discipline. We already talked about those; those are later uncertain and negative. From the employee’s perspective, their perception that it will save them time if they don’t have to go look for a face mask is soon, certain, and positive. I know that I will save time if I don’t have to go do that. From my perspective, my perception, that’s a positive outcome, and I know it, and it’s soon. It’s right away, right? So, it’s a strong consequence.


The perception that it’s going to be more comfortable or more convenient to not wear the face shield. I know I will be more comfortable not wearing that face shield. Soon, certain, and positive from my perspective, and I believe that I will see better if I’m not having to look through that face shield, soon, certain, and positive. So, if we look at this on a scale from the employee’s perception, the things that we have typically used to encourage that behavior are very weak versus the ones that are soon, certain, and positive that they would use to try to keep them from wearing it, that encourage them not to do it. So, again, unless a supervisor is there, looking right at them from behind, paying attention to everything they’re doing to make sure they do it, turning those later, uncertain, and negative into soon, certain, and negative unless that supervisor or manager is there. They’re probably not going to consistently wear that face shield in that situation. So, we’re setting ourselves up for failure, right?


So, how do we switch the narrative here? What do we do differently to help encourage our employees to work safer? Well, we provide safety feedback. We do observations that can reinforce safe behavior. We use positive feedback as a soon, certain, and positive consequence, acknowledging the perceived extra effort to work safely that we already talked about from the employee, and acknowledging that extra effort and saying, “Great job. I really appreciate what you did. I appreciate the extra effort that you put into it, the extra time it took to get this done by following these rules, but we did it right. No one was hurt. You’re happy. Your customer is happy. The client is happy.” And we use that information and that feedback, and we use it in a way that strengthens the culture, that corrects unsafe behaviors. We don’t try to cause guilt with it. We use it in a way to improve those working conditions. We use it in a way that will hopefully provide us with information about any hidden barriers to working safely. Going back to that, you know, the physical issues with the scratched-up safety glasses, you don’t go up and yell at them, “Why aren’t you wearing those safety glasses?!” You go up open and say, “I notice you’re not wearing your safety glasses here. The operation requires it. Is there any reason why? Is there anything I can do to help enable you to wear the safety glasses in this situation?”

“Well, actually, I can’t see through them because they’re fogging up on me,” or, “Actually, they’re all scratched up.”

“You know what? Let me help you out. Let me take care of that. That’s my job. Make sure you’ve got the right equipment. I don’t want that to be an impediment to you working safely. So, here you go.”

It takes a little bit of effort on the part of the manager to be aware of what folks are doing, but it’s not a lot of effort, and we’re not talking a lot of cost here you’re not putting a lot of big, expensive programs or buying a lot of expensive equipment necessarily. You’re simply engaging with your workforce, finding out what motivates them, which of these consequences work best with them, and using that to encourage those safe behaviors.


So, one final thing that I really want to go into when it comes to how we encourage these behaviors: There have been a lot of discussions out there about what is the biggest influence on unsafe behaviors, unsafe actions from employees? And, you know, there’s some studies that have shown 90 percent of all injuries are caused by unsafe actions versus unsafe behaviors. And longtime information in the safety profession was Heinrich’s Triangle, which basically said that for every 300 near misses, you had 29 big events to one major event. So, 300 near misses, 29 injuries to one fatality, or lost time injury. From a statistical perspective, that’s not accurate. For every 300, it doesn’t work out exactly.


However, there are systemic and cultural issues at play that influence whether or not an employee chooses to behave safely. So, if all those unsafe behaviors do contribute to those injuries, no matter that it matches some preconceived percentage that’s out there, doesn’t it make sense that we want to focus on that and find ways to encourage those employees to make better choices? It’s not a numbers game. It’s a common-sense game. How do we really look forward and observe our employees, see what they’re doing, see what works for them and then get them to make that change?


So, we start off with this by making a systematic approach. We set clear expectations of what success is. Okay, that’s an antecedent. That’s an activator. To do this successfully, we must do this, this, this, and this. You must follow the rules, wear the right PPE, do these procedures in the job. We define what that success is. We identify what those crucial activities, metrics, or behaviors are in that expectation of, you know, what success looks like. Then we monitor for it. We provide feedback and recognition and then apply an accountability. So, in that conversation, we have antecedents or activators, and we have consequences. We define the clear expectations. We define what success looks like. We tell them what those metrics are. We’re going to be paying attention to see that they’re successful. We’re going to monitor for that. All those are activators. Based on what we observe, we provide feedback and recognition and accountability as necessary, and those are consequences. We do all that from a soon, certain, and positive perspective, not a negative, uncertain, and later, not a threat of getting hurt or going to be injured. But here’s how I’m going to help you work safely based on what I’ve seen. Then we have the ability to impact and change what those behavior choices are going to be.


And so, going back to Heinrich’s Triangle, they use, you know, again, the triangle that we talked about originally, the bottom of the triangle where the most issues were at-risk behaviors, from those at-risk behaviors, it went to near misses to first aids to medical incidents to serious injury or fatality. The old concept was if we cut out those on the bottom, we’ll never get to the ones at the top. 


That’s not true. We’ve already talked about it’s not statistically valid. That’s not the way this works. Instead, if we look at a new pyramid approach to this, it starts at the bottom with the beliefs, the core ideas that support the values of your organization. Those values are the things that we believe are important: keeping an employee safe, producing high-quality finished product or service to our customers, right?


So, we have our beliefs. On top of that, we have our values. They’re built on those beliefs. We put in place management systems: our policies, our procedures, our training, our feedback programs, that are based on those values. Here’s what we think is important, and these are how the systems that we put in place support those values, which then support the beliefs.


From that management systems, we have the behaviors, the observable actions that our employees are taking within the management system we’ve put in place. So, if we have our procedures and our policies, this tells our employees these are the behaviors we want. So, they do those behaviors, those observable actions. If we have done a good job communicating the right behaviors with the right consequences out of them, then we get the outcomes we want which is successfully producing all of our products, successfully providing services to our customers and clients, successfully keeping our employees safe.


And so, that’s really what my entire discussion comes down to. I hope that this information makes sense to you. I hope that you were able to get something from it, and I would like to thank you for listening to this episode of CEC Explains.


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