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Thinking about behavioural safety

There has been a large uptake of “behavioural safety” approaches over the past decade or so, in a wide range of industries. These approaches are based on the premise that a significant proportion of accidents are primarily caused by the behaviour of front line staff, such as pilots, drivers, production operators or maintenance technicians. There is a wide range of such programmes available, but they generally involve (i) the definition of safe/unsafe behaviours, (ii) observations of behaviours by trained observers and (iii) feedback/reinforcement of behaviours.

My contact with companies shows that these approaches can be successful in reducing unsafe behaviours in the workplace. Due to the nature of these approaches, there are a number of other less tangible benefits, including:

  1. management demonstrate their commitment to improving safety;
  2. the workforce and management talking to each other about safety;
  3. increased profile of health and safety;
  4. increased visibility of management in the workplace;
  5. employee engagement in safety;
  6. managers/supervisors learn to act promptly on unsafe acts (and have a legitimate mechanism for doing so);
  7. managers/supervisors may improve their safety leadership;
  8. managers/supervisors learn to think about aspects of human factors.

In justifying behavioural interventions, it is often claimed that 70-80% of incidents are caused by ‘human error’. However, in my experience, company management usually see the ‘human’ in human error as referring to front line personnel. Therefore, behavioural safety interventions tend to focus on the behaviours of front line staff.

Safety culture/climate surveys have been very popular in recent years and these initiatives are also usually aimed at understanding and optimising the attitudes of front line personnel ­rather than investigating management attitudes and behaviours. Discussing the focus on front line staff in reported ‘causes’ of accidents, Trevor Kletz states that: ‘Managers and designers, it seems, are either not human or do not make errors’ (Kletz 2001, p.317).

A focus on individual operators ignores latent conditions that underlie incidents and implies that incidents can be prevented simply by operators “taking more care”. However, as Andrew Hopkins, an expert witness in the inquiry into major fires and explosion at the Longford facility in 1998, points out:

‘creating the right mindset is not a strategy which can be effective in dealing with hazards about which workers have no knowledge and which can only be identified and controlled by management’ (2000, p. 75).

Management and organisational factors have a large influence on accidents and incidents, either directly or through their impact on the behaviours of employees. It is these management decisions etc. that are usually excluded from behavioural safety approaches (and usually not included in other safety initiatives). In fact, the management decision to initiate a behavioural approach may itself be flawed.

Although the immediate causes of major incidents frequently involve ‘human error’ of operators or maintenance personnel, the reasons that these errors occurred in the first place are usually the responsibility of those more senior in the organisation. Management and organisational failures, such as inadequacies in competency assurance systems, poorly designed equipment, or a lack of resources, have the potential to influence the behaviours of everyone in the organisation.

Major hazard or safety critical industries such as refineries, chemical plants, nuclear facilities and offshore installations should consider exactly which aspects of “health and safety” a behavioural intervention may be able to influence.

Behavioural safety interventions tend to focus on behaviours relating to personal health and safety; such as the wearing of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), positioning of the body in relation to hazardous equipment, and issues relating to working at height (e.g. wearing of harnesses, proper use of ladders). Behavioural interventions may be able to demonstrate improvements, for example, in the wearing of PPE, but this is of little relevance if those wearing the PPE do not have the underlying knowledge to respond appropriately to a developing incident, or if there are insufficient operators available. Hi-visibility jackets and hard hats offer little protection in a major fire or explosion.

Many supporters of behavioural safety programmes state that large improvements in safety have been made in the past decade or so in engineering and safety management systems; and that new approaches are required to encourage further improvement. Although large advances have been made in these areas, major accidents are still occurring due to failures in these aspects. It is therefore not appropriate to conclude that we have ‘solved’ engineering causes of accidents, nor to assume that no further focus on management systems is required. A publication by the Step Change initiative in the offshore oil and gas industry acknowledges that:

‘addressing behaviours must not be seen as an alternative to ensuring that adequate engineering design and effective safety management systems are in place’ (Step Change, 2000, p.5).

Cultural or behavioural interventions will only be successful if engineering, technical and systems aspects are in place and adequately managed. Therefore, before sites (particularly those that manage major hazards) embark on a behavioural safety programme, they need to ensure that they have satisfied the following conditions:

Once the above technical and systems issues have been addressed, the site then needs to ask whether a behavioural approach is the right approach at this time. Only when the above issues have been addressed can it be assumed that accidents are due to cultural or behavioural factors. In order for a behavioural intervention to prosper, there are several aspects that must be considered, including that:

Finally, once all of the above criteria are in place, if a site decides to embark on a behavioural intervention, the following general advice may be useful (much of which also applies to other health and safety interventions):

On major hazard sites, there is a danger that behavioural programmes may draw resources and attention away from process safety issues. Organisations embarking on behavioural programmes should retain a balanced approach between personal safety and major accident safety, and to consider whether a behavioural intervention is right for their company at this time.

The key messages from this article are:

  1. behavioural interventions are only one aspect of ‘human factors’,
  2. these programmes are only one tool in the safety practitioners toolbox,
  3. know the limits of such interventions, and
  4. prepare the ground before attempting such an intervention.

Further information can be found on the Behavioural safety topic page.


  1. Kletz, T. (2001). Learning from accidents. Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd, Oxford. ISBN 0 7506 4883 X
  2. Hopkins, A. (2000). Lessons from Longford: The Esso Gas Plant Explosion. CCH Australia Ltd, ISBN 1 86468 422 4
  3. Step Change (2000). Changing minds: a practical guide for behavioural change in the oil and gas industry.