Human factors: Behavioural safety approaches - an introduction (also known as behaviour modification)

Why is it commonly used?

  • Significant number of accidents reportedly caused by inappropriate behaviour
  • Good vehicle for management and workforce participation
  • Can improve the visibility of managers
  • Behaviours and actions influence culture through attitudes and perceptions
  • Behaviours determine the performance of systems

Key features

  • Define 'safe' and 'unsafe' behaviour
  • All involve observation of behaviour in the workplace
    • By managers and/or peers
    • With/without targets
  • Provide feedback
    • Reinforce safe behaviour
    • 're-educate' unsafe behaviour
  • Feedback ranges from on-the-spot specific feedback and discussion, to impersonalised general data


  • Discussing safety in the workplace
  • Learning to communicate constructively
  • Management visibility
  • Employee engagement in safety
  • Managers/supervisors (when involved)
  • Learn to observe
  • Learn to act promptly on unsafe acts
  • Can learn about safety leadership
  • Learn to think about aspects of human factors
  • Can provide some leading indicators for safety
  • Can actually change behaviour ("cognitive dissonance")
  • Will identify dangerous situations


  • Rule violation vs good rules?
  • BIG, disciplined effort required
    • Very often fails through lack of real commitment or discipline
    • Some changes will be expensive
  • Not 'owned' by everyone
  • 'Off the peg' or consultant-led programmes can fail because of poor fit with local style/culture (UK/US)
  • Trust levels amongst management and employees must match.
  • Lack of friendly communication/Directive style of management

More pitfalls

  • May not be compatible with other messages
  • Focus on easy, intuitive issues
  • Tend to ignore low probability, high consequence risks. 'Boots not leaks' - can draw attention away from process safety
  • Can shift onus away from management onto individual
  • Don't address significant impacts of management behaviour
  • 'Big brother' /blame culture /Oh no, not another programme. . .
  • High short-term expectations
  • Failed programme = worse situation than start

Inspection & assessment issues

  • What is the evidence that behaviour change will improve safety? (as opposed to better procedures or easier to use equipment for example).
  • How is the programme linked to the Safety Management System (SMS)?
  • How do they address tough issues? (ie costly remedial work, time pressure)
  • Do they understand the programme and its strengths and weakness (ie competence)?
  • Are programme goals linked to other goals, ie team working?
  • What happens when an observation card is completed? (workforce experience vs. management view)
  • Are they knowledgeable, intelligent customers?

Advice for companies considering behavioural approaches:  Some Do's and Don'ts


  • Be sure that it is really what you need right now
  • Find out (from employees) whether signals they get from management about safety are the first issue to address
  • Network with others - not only those suggested by the consultants
  • Learn what you can from alternative techniques available
  • Make sure the system is your own, in style, language, presentation etc.
  • Pilot, and only roll-out when confident of success
  • Use it as a dialogue – and that means LISTEN to your employees!
  • Spend considerable effort to get good, strong facilitators who understand safety
  • Make sure that participants focus on root causes of behaviours


  • Underestimate the effort and planning required
  • Be over-optimistic
  • Get carried away and lose focus on other aspects of safety
  • Believe that the 'Heinrich triangle' works for occupational ill-health, minor personal injuries and major accidents
  • Bother at all unless:
    • You're confident that you already have a strong SMS and a safe workplace
    • Senior management can be made to think it was their idea all along

Increasing the effectiveness /chance of success

  • Ownership - developed in-house is best
  • Good fit with organisations needs, culture and SMS
  • Commitment (involvement is better) from management
  • Good communication and understanding of programme
  • Approach seen as 'fair and just' - trust
  • Managers act as role models


  • There are many advantages to doing Behavioural Safety
  • But these programmes (and cultural change) take time, resources and a concerted effort - senior management commitment
  • A useful addition to the toolkit for occupational safety, but limited benefits for the control of major hazards
  • Bias towards measurable success; can pull focus away from basics of SMS and process safety
  • Must address engineering and systems as well
  • Include workforce and management behaviours
  • Effectiveness of programme largely depends on existing culture. 

Further information

  • Anderson, M. (2004). Behavioural safety and major accident hazards: Magic bullet or shot in the dark?  Conference Proceedings, Hazards XVIII Symposium, 24 November 2004. IChemE, UMIST, Manchester.
  • Fleming, M. (2001). Safety culture maturity model. Offshore Technology Report 049. HSE Books, ISBN 0 7176 1919 2.
  • Fleming, M. & Lardner, R. (2001). Behaviour modification programmes: establishing best practice. Offshore Technology Report 048. HSE Books, ISBN 0 7176 1920 6.
  • Fleming, M. & Lardner, R. (2002). Strategies to promote safe behaviour as part of a health and safety management system. HSE Contract Research Report CRR430, HSE Books, ISBN 0 7176 2352 1
  • Step Change (2000).  Changing Minds: A practical guide for behavioural change in the oil and gas industry, website -

Martin Anderson   FErgS
Health and Safety Executive, 2007

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