Through my years as a safety professional, I noticed that some days workers would comply with rules, standards, and protective clothing and equipment requirements while at other times they would not. I have trained workers these requirements as well as encouraged supervisors to remind workers that they must comply. I have used posters to warn workers of the human toll of not complying with these requirements. I have even used behavior approaches to get workers to follow these requirements. As a last result, I have agreed with management to discipline workers that can’t or won’t comply. I can honestly say that none of those worked for very long.
Then I came upon a solution that may seem outside the box to some but is well worth trying. I determined that workers need to establish the habit of following safety rules and standards. This solution will get them in the habit of complying rather than needing to be reminded. I have read many books on developing habits. Some were good others not so. T.C. Peterson writes that “a common pitfall of many habit books is that most of them fail to recognize that human beings have limited willpower and that we start off well and achieve a lot, but that which we realize is not sustainable (Peterson, 2017). That is at the crux of my decision to use habits. I want workers to demonstrate safe behavior that is sustainable. That they will do it every work day for the foreseeable future.
I first used this method with a seat belt program known as Click it or Ticket. I was the safety manager of a military base with thousands of soldiers that drove government and private vehicles. I used the three-step process to develop habits that involved: Cue, Habit, and Reward (Havill, 2015). The cue was sitting in the seat of a vehicle. The habit was for soldiers to fasten their seat belt every time they sat in a vehicle for two weeks. The habit was reinforced by having each soldier sign a pledge to wear a seat belt every time they sat in a vehicle for two weeks. This pledge was a modification of the pledge used by the Click it or Ticket campaign. The reward was recognition by the command for increased seat belt usage. This was reinforced by seat belt usage surveys taken at busy locations. At no time did anyone speak of using the seat belt forever or even talk about the consequences of not wearing a seatbelt.
I got pushback from some people because the pledge and campaign only focused on two weeks. I determined the time frame of two weeks based on what I had read about developing habits. That is if you practice behavior for two-weeks, it becomes a habit. That was the goal of the program. Focus on developing within these soldiers the habit of wearing their seat belt that would last for years to come.
I used the same approach to prevent drinking and driving as well as well as walking against traffic rather than with it. All three applications were successful. I learned that the two weeks application does not always create a life habit in some people. For those, you needed to reapply the two-week period for them to strengthen the habit. I also found that you must reinforce habits periodically.
I did not come up with this idea entirely on my own. I have read books on developing habits. The most well-known was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I have even heard others say Make Safety a Habit over the years. I recalled Texas Mutual Insurance as well as North American Occupational Safety and Health also use this slogan.
In the past, I always tried to focus on changing worker behavior to control and eliminate hazards because behaviors are outside the worker’s head and I can observe and measure them. I have not tried to change a worker’s values and beliefs to control and eliminate hazards because values and beliefs are inside the worker’s head and I cannot observe or measure them (Skip, 2018). Despite that effort, this new approach to developing habits focuses on changing values, beliefs, and behavior to be successful. The energy the worker puts forth to create the new habit changes their values and beliefs in their subconscious mind. The actual performance of the habit behavior is then done subconsciously. “When you ingrain a new habit, you are making physiological changes to the brain. Some people may use an analogy of “rewiring the brain” (Havill, 2016).
Through my efforts to develop safe habits among workers I learned from T.C. Peterson (2017) that “the result is that your brain accepts these small changes a lot easier and so building on them becomes a non-issue.” Because of this, I kept the changes small. T.C. Peterson (2017) also taught me that “It is not just enough to have smaller habits; they need to be easy. They need to be something that takes less than five minutes or happens once a week or once a month. That is the kind of thing that we can stick with.” Because of this, I would break habits down into smaller actions.
Kyle Havill (2016) says that rewards come in many forms. There are two basic kinds of positive rewards: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic rewards come from outside of you. Examples include money, treats, and participating in activities, like going to the movies. Intrinsic rewards are rewards within you. Examples include pride, satisfaction, and feeling good for doing something sweet for others.
Kyle Havill (2016) explains that when habits are adopted the new behavior is led by the subconscious mind. The person does not need to think about it because it becomes automatic. When you do something subconsciously, it is so much easier because it requires little focus.
I learned from Kyle Havill (2016) that for team members to buy in and commit to the habit development process, they must have a solid understanding of how habits will benefit them and the team, how habits are developed, and all the necessary elements of successful habit development.
A cue must trigger all habits. That means something triggers the behavior. For a hard hat, example stepping onto the construction site would be the perfect cue. For the seatbelt example, it would be sitting in a vehicle.
The supervisor must be obsessive about tracking performance (Havill, 2016). Using the hard hat example where a worker would sign a pledge to wear a hard hat. This means the supervisor must correct every worker they see not wearing their hard hat during that two-week period. Supervisors must also be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations (Havill, 2016). Speaking to those not wearing a hard hat may be difficult, but workers must be reminded they made a pledge they must follow through on.
Dr. Sean Young has done much research into habits and provides most of the conclusions in his book Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life – For Good. One of the things he points to as an essential element to developing habits is that they must be easy. He reinforces what T.C. Peterson says. I have found the same thing in my experience over the years. You do not want people to work on habits that are more like goals and visions. They have a better chance of success if they work on something smaller like a task.
Before developing a habit, it is essential to explain the idea behind developing habits to perform safe behaviors to the workers. The more they understand the process and how it works the more robust the habit development will be. I took questions that Kyle Havill (2016) developed and applied them to safety:
- What if we used the safety habit theory to a group of workers?
- What if groups of 3, 30, 300 or more workers, in a coordinated effort, developed essential safety habits that could control and eliminate hazards?
- How much could additional costs be avoided if those habits controlled or eliminated hazards before a workplace accident or illness occurred?
- How many unsafe behaviors could these workers prevent just with the sum of their efforts?
That is powerful. Let us look at an example. I worked for years in the construction industry. Supervisors were always after us to wear our hard hats. They would cajole, threaten, and occasionally even bop a worker on the head if they were not wearing a hard hat. This was the most common approach to getting us to wear our hard hats. Over time hard hat usage remained low. Kyle Havill (2016) recommends an alternate method. The supervisor calls us everyone together and tells them why they must wear hard hats and how they can develop the habit of wearing them. Finally, the supervisor makes each worker sign a pledge to wear their hard hat every day for two weeks. During that two weeks, the supervisor would remind those that weren’t wearing theirs and remind them of their pledge, but no other action would be taken. I think this example would be useful and work. What other safety habits could you create in workers?
Habits for home:
- Wear my seatbelt every time I am in a vehicle (Skip, 2018).
- Put all children in approved child safety seats before any vehicle trip.
- Put all medicines and poisons in high cabinets or place child safety locks on cabinet doors.
- Do not drink and drive.
- Serve as the designated drivers whenever necessary to save a family member or friend’s life.
- Do not mow my yard wearing sandals.
- Always wear hearing protection when mowing.
Habits for work:
- Wear personal protective equipment when required.
- Speak up when I see a co-worker performing unsafely.
- Report unsafe and unhealthful working conditions to my supervisor (Skip, 2018).
- Report all accidents to my supervisor.
- Report all injuries to my supervisor.
- Go home each day in the same condition I arrived at work (Skip, 2018).
Habits for supervisors and managers:
- Provide adequate personal protective equipment and training on its use to all my direct reports (Skip, 2018).
- Correct unsafe and unhealthy work conditions.
- Investigate accidents and injuries to determine the root cause (Skip, 2018).
- Correct root causes found by accident investigations.
- Send my direct reports home each day in the same condition they arrived at work.
To me, it seems evident that safety professionals need to teach workers how to develop new safety habits to prevent injuries and occupational illnesses. This concept has been proven in other uses and can be just as successful with safety. Establishing the habit of following rules, standards, and wearing protective clothing and equipment is the solution we have all been searching for. I encourage you to read the references listed below and learn more about developing habits. If you want workers to demonstrate sustainable, safe behavior for the foreseeable future I think habits is the tool you need to implement.
Havill, Kyle, How to Build Work Teams Habits: Improve your Customer Experience, Increase Efficiency, and Enjoy Better Business Results, 2016, USA.
Peterson, T.C., Easy Habit Mastery, 2017, Charleston, USA.
Skip the New Year’s Resolutions in Favor Of Developing … (n.d.). Retrieved from https://fredefanningauthor.com/2018/01/03/skip-the-new-years-resolutions-in-favo
Young, Sean Ph.D. Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life – For Good. June 20, 2017. HarperCollins Publishers.