Focus on Behavior to Prevent Accidents

How does your company treat employees that perform unsafe behaviors? I ask because if supervisors do not respond correctly, they could be reinforcing unsafe behavior instead of stopping it. Some supervisors think they need to change employee values and beliefs to change behavior. That is not necessary. It takes a lot of time and money to work with each employee in-depth to teach them to give up their current values and beliefs for new ones. An example is that supervisors should not make employees like each other, but they should make them work together without issue. What supervisors want is for the employees to work together without issues even if they don’t like each other. The supervisors focus is on responding to issues between the two employees not getting them to like each other.

I assert from the start that we don’t have enough time and money to change an employee’s values and beliefs. In this blog post, I would like to explore this thought and see what supervisors can reasonably do to get the safe behavior.

A basic psychology course teaches that human behavior is a function of activators, behaviors, and consequences. The course also teaches that:

• Values and beliefs are inside an employee’s head and cannot be observed or measured
• Behaviors are outside an employee’s head and are observable and measurable.

Because they can be observed and measured behaviors can be managed and changed using the ABC Model, which consists of Activators, Behavior, and Consequences. Activators are defined as a person, place, thing or event that happens before a behavior takes place that encourages an employee to exhibit the behavior. Some examples might include a sign that says slippery floor in a hallway at work, or a sign that says hearing protection required. Behavior is defined as any visual and measurable action that an employee takes. Some examples might include talking to a supervisor, walking to the meeting room, or sitting at a desk. Lastly, Consequences are defined as an action, response, or event that follows a behavior. Consequences either increase or decrease the probability that the behavior will be repeated. Some examples might include being sent home from work for wearing inappropriate clothing, receiving an award at work for cleaning up a spill in the hall preventing a fall, or getting a promotion for installing electrical components on time to budget.

There are four types of consequences. First is positive reinforcement, which is described as “do this and you, will be rewarded”. Next there is negative reinforcement, which is described as “do this or else you will be penalized”. This is followed by punishment, which is described as “if you do this you will be penalized.” Lastly, there is extinction, which is described as “ignore it and it will go away”.

Consequences aren’t the same for every employee. They depend on how the employee perceives them, which determines if they perceive the consequence as good or bad. Many times we hear about a teenager acting up, being punished, but receives the positive attention from his parents he desires. In this case, he sees this as a good thing, in spite of being punished. That is why it is critical for a supervisor to know his or her employees. Only then will a supervisor understand what the employee will perceive as good or bad.

Our behavior is also influenced by our perception of the magnitude of a consequence by determining whether the consequence is big or small. Employees perceive the significance of the response and whether it has a positive or negative impact and whether it is personal or not. They also perceive timing of the consequence, whether it is immediate or sometime in the future. Lastly, they perceive whether the consequence is certain or uncertain.

Both positive and negative reinforcement increases wanted behavior; however, over time, the resulting behavior will last longer when it is positive. On the other hand, both punishment and extinction decrease the unwanted behavior; however, over time, the prevented behavior doesn’t last very long. For punishment, it works at first, but then almost immediately is less and less successful. Extinction works well for a few uses then drops off sharply. It appears that it is best for use to use positive or negative reinforcement; however, negative reinforcement will give inconsistent results that will get supervisors the behavior they want but not consistently over time. Positive reinforcement of behavior gets supervisors consistent results over time and is the one method of increasing the probability of an employee performing behavior the we want while at the same time preventing behavior the supervisor doesn’t want. At first, we might have to use punishment to get an employee to stop the unwanted behavior but use it sparingly.

Most unsafe behavior can be prevented by positively reinforcing the employee’s behavior from the first day he or she is on the job and punishing it when it was unsafe. This results in an employee behaving more safe behaviors to receive positive reinforcement at the same time the employee avoids unsafe behavior to avoid punishment. If the supervisor takes action each time he or she observes the employee’s behavior, he or she could avoid the unsafe behavior. This is successful because people very seldom have an accident the first time they perform an unsafe behavior. To be honest, people can perform the same unsafe behavior quite a few times before an incident or accident occurs. By reinforcing behavior along the way supervisor can prevent accidents from happening.
If you remember nothing else from this blog post, please remember that we can change behavior by controlling the consequences that come after behavior consistently and mostly positively. Supervisors can get the safe behavior they want!

About Fred Fanning Author

Fred Fanning currently writes biweekly on his blog His published works include the peer-reviewed book Basic Safety Administration-A Handbook for the New Safety Specialist. Fred also authored two editions of the peer-reviewed chapter Safety Training and Documentation Principles that was published in the bestselling Safety Professional Handbook and the Safety Professional Handbook Management Applications. He coauthored the peer-reviewed chapter Safety Training with Christine Fiori, Ph.D., PE, published in the bestselling Construction Safety Management and Engineering, second edition edited by Darryl C. Hill, Ph.D., CSP. Fred also has several self-published books. He has a series called Fred’s Safety Shorts. This is a collection of twelve books on topics related to safety published with Kindle Direct Publishing. Fred self-published another six books using both CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform and Kindle Direct Publishing. He has authored fifty-eight articles in various publications on the topics of safety and health and project management. Fred has earned several writing awards for his non-fiction work. Fred has two novels A Walk Among the Dead and Mystery at Devil’s Elbow.
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