Excellence in workplace safety and health


    Behavioural safety is a key part of a business’s journey towards ensuring excellence in workplace safety and health. Here Jill Joyce, Senior Policy & Research Adviser at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) explains the process that companies can take…

    Behavioural safety programmes can help to prevent work related accidents and diseases, which are expensive for companies. Research has shown that up to 80% of work related accidents are caused by employees’ behaviour.1 Behavioural safety is about identifying bad habits that could cause accidents or lead to ill health and reinforcing good habits. It’s important not to confuse this approach with inspections, which are looking for unsafe conditions. Safe behaviour is regarded as a critical work related skill so unsafe behaviours can act as an early warning system for accidents and incidents. If we measure these behaviours, this provides information we can use proactively to improve workplace safety and health.

    What do organisations need to do before introducing a behavioural safety programme?

    If a behavioural safety programme is to be effective it must be implemented well. There are several stages to follow for a successful implementation. The first is to assess whether the company is ready culturally for such a programme. For example is there management commitment to the idea, does the company have a good internal communication strategy and is there a ‘fair blame’ culture? A survey could be carried out before the programme starts to measure the safety climate.2

    It is essential to have support from both the management and work force. The best way to gain support from employees is to involve them in the programme. A steering group needs to be set up to oversee the programme and it is important that this is representative of the whole workforce.

    The next step is to train the observers how to identify critical safety behaviours, what to record and how to provide feedback. It’s important that everyone is using the same criteria to judge behaviours. It is usual to compile a checklist of critical behaviours. These can be based on analysis of previous accidents or incidents. Near misses are particularly important to consider as they may give an indication of behaviours that could have led to accidents. When the checklist is ready, it is useful to establish a base line by conducting initial observations and noting the current level of safe behaviours. This enables future progress on the programme to be measured.3, 4

    Then there follows a continuous loop of observation, feedback and review and if necessary training. It’s important that feedback is phrased positively so that safe behaviours are reinforced. For example, someone who is acting safely would be praised, but someone who was not would be told how they could change their behaviour without apportioning blame to them. The data from the observation process can be used to examine trends and identify areas for improvement. Participative goals that employees help to set are more effective.5 Rewards can be given for meeting safe working goals, for example at the London Olympic Park, these ranged from verbal praise to monetary rewards, vouchers, knock off early schemes, T shirts and fleeces etc.6

    Visible leadership is important

    Managers need to show commitment to the process and can do so by allowing observers time to conduct their observations and encouraging employees to report problems with safety and health. They should praise individuals they see working safely and ensure there are resources available if any corrective actions are necessary.

    It’s also important to understand why employees might behave unsafely. For example, do work deadlines mean that they have to cut corners (for example not using a mask because it is uncomfortable and a job will not take long to do)? Do employees understand the risks associated with a particular task or are there ergonomic factors that prevent them behaving safely? At the London Olympic Park construction site, employees handed out yellow and red cards to highlight unsafe behaviour. These were followed up with a discussion with the employees concerned to establish why they acted unsafely.

    Behaviour based approaches work best when the physical environment and plant are well maintained and procedures are in place. The benefits of introducing a behavioural safety programme within an organisation is the opportunity it provides for the whole workforce to co-operate together proactively to continuously improve safety and health.


    1 Pigeon T (1991) Safety culture and risk management in organisations. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology. Volume 22 pp 129-140

    2 http://www.hsl.gov.uk/products/safety-climate-tool.aspx

    3 Cooper M.D. (2009) Behavioural Safety Interventions – A review of process design factors. Professional Safety February 2009, 36.

    4 Looking for higher standards – behavioural safety IOSH Wigston.2013 www.iosh.co.uk/behavioural

    5 Locke E.A., Latham G.P. (2002) Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 3 year odyssey. American Psychologist 57 (9) 705-717

    6 Sudden C et al (2012) Safety culture on the Olympic Park. http://learninglegacy.independent.gov.uk/publications/safety-cultureon-the-olympic-park.php

    Jill Joyce

    Senior Policy & Research Adviser

    Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH)



    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here