Change Behavior to Reduce Accidents!

Imagine a bagel truck driving up to the security guard of a large building where the truck is to drop off bagels for the company’s cafeteria. A security officer clears the truck driver and he pulls ahead, makes a right hand turn and drives down the ramp into the garage door.

The truck bounces back after hitting the door and as luck would have it the whole thing is caught on a security camera. The bagel company pays $10,000 to have the door repaired only to find out the door could not be repaired and had to be replaced for an additional $28,000. To exacerbate the situation the bagel company accidentally let its insurance lapse and was stuck with the bill for the garage door replacement.

How many bagels does the company have to bake and deliver to pay for the door? Where I live a dozen bagels is about $8. If the company makes a net of $2 on the dozen the company has to bake and sell about 14,000 bagels to pay for the driver’s mistake. That seems like a lot of money for simply not paying attention. This story is true, but I left the names of the companies and employees out so as not to embarrass anyone.

The supervisor of this driver might think the driver has a bad attitude and wishes there was some way to get the driver to perform safely. I have been a supervisor for 22 years and have heard supervisors say such things as “If I could just fix that driver’s attitude he wouldn’t have accidents like this” or “If I could just get that guy to think he wouldn’t have accidents like this”. What does it really take to change someone’s attitude or to get someone to think?

I assert from the start that we don’t have enough time and money to change a person’s beliefs or values that create the attitudes. In this blog entry I would like to explore this thought and see what we can reasonably do to get safer performance.

Performance is observed and measured behavior that determines whether the performance is good or bad. In college I was taught that human behavior is a function of activators, behaviors, and consequences. Of those three, behavior is the only one that is both observable and measurable. That means that behavior is the only one we can manage and therefore change!

Through an employee learning model we can demonstrate that attitudes or what may be called values and beliefs are inside a person’s head and cannot be observed or measured. The good news is that attitudes don’t have to be changed to get a person to perform the behavior a supervisor wants.

Every time we demonstrate behavior we receive either a positive or negative consequence. Once we come to expect the consequence we create habits and expect the same consequence each and every time that behavior is performed. Not only is the outcome influenced by our values and beliefs it is also influenced by the expected consequences. The values and beliefs we have not control over, but the consequences we do. This is best demonstrated through the ABC Model, which consists of Activators that trigger human behavior, Behavior or the actual human performance, and Consequences or what happens in response that either reinforces or punishes the behavior. Activators are defined as a person, place, thing or event that happens before a behavior takes place that encourages a person 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 thing that a person does. 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”.

There is also a secret to consequences that most people don’t understand. That is that consequences aren’t the same for everybody. They depend on how we perceive them, which determines if we perceive the consequence as good or bad. Many times we hear about a teenager acting up, being punished, but receive 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 very important 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. We will also perceive the significance of the response and whether it has a positive or negative impact and whether it is personal or not. We will also perceive timing of the consequence, whether it is immediate or sometime in the future. Lastly we perceive whether the consequence is certain or uncertain.

We normally want to empower our employees and want the employee to be pro-active rather than reactive. We want the employee to complete their work to quality and quantity standards without an accident and the associated costs and liability. When employees don’t demonstrate desired behavior what can we do? I recommend practicing the ABCs model by reinforcing the behavior we want. 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 us the behavior we want but not consistently over time. Positive reinforcement of behavior gets us 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 unwanted behavior, but using sparingly.

In our example accident the supervisor could have prevented the event by positively reinforcing the drivers behavior from the first day he was on the job when it was correct and punishing it in the first few weeks when it was incorrect. This would have resulted in the driver behaving more like a good driver to receive positive reinforcement at the same time the driver avoided bad driving behavior to avoid punishment. If the supervisor would have taken action each time he observed the drivers behavior he could have avoided the need to bake 14,000 bagels to pay for the drivers mistake. This is successful because people very seldom have an accident the first time they perform a behavior. To be honest people can perform the same behavior quite a few times before an incident or accident occurs. By reinforcing behavior along the way can prevent accidents from occurring. If you remember nothing else from this blog post please remember that we can change behavior by controlling the consequences that come after behavior as long as we keep those consequences consistent and mostly positive we can get the safe behavior we 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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