Prompting safe behaviour

Highly dangerous, the potential for an incident in the construction industry is always present. Dominic Cooper considers how worker behaviour can impact on safety complex building projects.

The opportunities for things to go wrong are immense. The key to success is for everyone on site to be engaged in controlling and improving safety, by identifying and fixing hazards, tightening management risk controls, and challenging unsafe behaviours. By simultaneously focusing on all three, within a mutually trusting and supportive atmosphere, the possibility of a serious injury or death is significantly reduced.

Importantly, people’s behavioural choices accounted for around 56% of all potential serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs), with poor management controls (e.g. job planning, poor quality rules & procedures), and physical hazards accounting for the remainder. Construction safety research shows the bulk of activities involved in serious injuries and fatalities are falls from heights, dropped objects, and slips, trips & falls on the same level. A well-run behavioural safety process can help to reduce these incidents.

An ideal behavioural safety process would include:  

  1. Identifying specific wanted behaviours (e.g. Tying off when working at height; maintaining 3-points of contact when on a ladder, placing toe-boards on scaffold lifts, etc.)
  2. Developing short behaviour observation checklists (e.g. focused on PPE when working at heights, passing, stacking & storing materials at height, Use of leading edge protection, etc.)
  3. Educating everyone. Tell everyone what you want to do and ask the lads if they will contribute; training everyone to use observation checklists, training an on-site team to collate and deal with the observations, including fixing any problems.
  4. Assessing and monitoring actual behaviour. Try to get one observation checklist completed per day, per work-team. Don’t use quotas where everyone has to hand in an observation. You will get micky mouse observations that swamp and hide the real safety issues, and a focus on quantity not quality of observations
  5. Limitless feedback provided on results to all – verbal feedback at the point-of-observation, weekly graphical charts highlighting trends in the observation categories and tabular analysis of the behaviours done safely and unsafely. Many companies often don’t know what to do with the observation data. Use it to acknowledge safe behaviour, highlight any unsafe behaviours to focus on, and identify unsafe conditions, hazards or management systems leading to the unsafe behaviour(s) and fix them.

A simpler approach is to use pre-determined observation cards that contain categories of activity, such as access and egress or body positioning; and discussion categories of underlying contributors, for example poor job planning or poor communications.

Trained observers, including managers and supervisors, observe behaviour during their normal daily work, providing positive on-the-spot feedback to those working safely or coaching those unsafe, while discussing the underlying reasons for an unwanted behaviour. No checklists are carried during this time, but the observation and discussion is later recorded after the interaction is complete. An Irish project using this approach with an 800-person workforce achieved zero incidents within two weeks…!

With both behavioural processes, the data is analysed regularly and used to highlight strengths and areas of opportunity with the results disseminated widely on site via toolbox talks and posters.  The observation data is also used to facilitate any corrective and preventative actions, such as removing hazardous materials, and the tracking of progress. Long term data trends are used to adapt either process to ensure their sustainability.

If done well, Behavioural Safety creates a safety partnership between site managers and operatives that reduces incident potential: good safety leadership impact people’s safety behaviour by as much as 86 per cent, and engaged operatives are five times less likely to be involved in an incident, and seven times less likely to be seriously injured.

Previously a Sapper in the Royal Engineers and an Advanced Scaffolder, Dr. Dominic Cooper CFIOSH, CPsychol, has helped improve the safety culture of many companies over the past 30 years

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