Shock tactics: Behavioural safety is the new approach to health and safety

Training consultant Nick Morton still has a picture that a little girl drew for him when he went to a school to talk to students about health and safety. The pencil drawing is of a children’s playground with two swings side by side. A child sits on one of the swings but the other is empty. Nick had asked the children to draw a picture about health and safety so assumed the drawing was meant to be about taking care in the playground, but then the little girl explained the empty seat: “My daddy used to work on a building site and now he can’t sit with me on that swing because he was killed at work.”

swingsIt’s fashionable to see health and safety as annoying bureaucracy but accidents at work have devastating consequences, and they can be a powerful motivator to encourage people to adopt best practices. That’s the essence of behavioural safety, the new concept that is changing attitudes to the subject.

“Rather than forcing people by threatening them with disciplinary action, it’s about associating staying safe with the person’s life,” explains Clive Ormerod, managing director of OMS, the training specialist where Nick Morton is operations director.

The benefits for you as a person of adopting good health and safety practices are tied up with your hopes and your private life. You are less likely to take unnecessary risks if you have the spectre of not being able to do the things you love or being with the people you love if you are seriously hurt or killed.

“We try to engage people on a personal level so they do the right thing because they want to, not because they are forced to.

A new acronym has emerged as part of the move towards behavioural safety – VFL, standing for Visible Felt Leadership – that encapsulates a new management style.

“VFL is about seeing the leaders of the business going around talking to people at all levels but especially at the hands on level,” says Clive Ormerod. “Instead of telling people what to do, they should be talking to people about why they need to wear a hard hat and safety glasses, for example. You want people to understand what they need to be doing rather than just following the rules. It’s a more pragmatic approach.”

A natural extension of that philosophy is the replacement of officious health and safety officers writing up noncompliance reports with moves towards health and safety coaching teams.

“We look to see the companies we work with importing the health and safety assessment into the individual,” says Clive Ormerod. “That means a higher level of training and development for individuals. We want to change the culture of organisations so that people are looking after themselves.”

And not just themselves. “We teach people that they have a duty of care to those around them” says Clive Ormerod. “One organisation we work with has a policy called “NAB” that stands for No Accident Behaviour, and they encourage people to “nab” anyone and stop them from working until they are doing so safely.”

Part of implementing behavioural safety in practice is identifying the people within a workplace who have power and influence.

“The immediate supervisor or an experienced colleague typically has much more influence over a worker’s practices than a more distant manager,” says Clive Ormerod. “We call these influencers the real guys.”

He continues: “Behavioural safety is a more modern approach, and it’s needed. If you look at accident frequency rates, they won’t drop below a certain level with conventional approaches to health and safety. You can only do so much with policy, procedures and PPE. I think changing workplace attitudes is more important than legislation.”

He also believes that management attitudes need to change, pointing to research by Bradford University that shows managers giving quality more priority than health and safety because it is driven by a business case rather than a legal one.

Contrary to standard practice OMS insists on its training courses the first heading on the list of drivers for good health and safety is “moral” ahead of “legal” and “financial”.

Management needs not only commitment but also to fully buy in to new ideas about health and safety if they are to work.

“The behavioural approach yields results, but it has to be supported properly when it is implemented,” says Clive Ormerod. “There has to be an education and training process in there, and you have to make sure you have the enablers in place.”