Behaviour is increasingly viewed as a solution to safety. Andrew Sharman reviews 500 years of science to explore the development of behaviour-based safety and suggests a more holistic approach to improving safety culture in the workplace

Think about the last time you were in a bad mood. Perhaps something didn’t go as planned at work. Maybe a cross word with your partner at home or the kids didn’t tidy up.  How did you behave? Did you slam the door as you left the room, thump the table with your fist, or raise your voice and vow never to buy more toys? Or did you calmly smile to yourself and let it all go?

As our individual behaviours come together with those of others around us, they collectively form and shape the cultures of the organisations, family units and social groups to which we belong.

The often-used definition of culture “the way we do things around here” may be simple, but it’s a great way to look at things – especially workplace safety culture – as culture is all about behaviour.

In the beginning there was a dog

The name Pavlov is recognised by many as the scientist who, in the late 1800s, claimed that he could create a reflex behaviour in dogs; first, making them salivate by presenting them with a biscuit, then encouraging them to link the sound of a bell with being given the biscuit, so that in time the dogs would salivate on hearing the noise – even without the presence of a treat.

These early experiments in behavioural conditioning led to the subsequent stimulus-response psychological theory. While appealing in its simplicity, we know that people are (usually) more complex than dogs, and their reflexes cannot always be as easily influenced. We must bear in mind that a stimulus – whether a biscuit, free lunch, or a monetary reward – does not in itself elicit a particular response. It merely modifies the likelihood of a behaviour occurring.

Conditioning behaviour

Pavlov’s classical experiments evolved into what we now call “operant conditioning” where the worker responds to factors within his environment and moderates his behaviour accordingly. His behaviour is strengthened or “reinforced” by consequences.

The Antecedent–Behaviour–Consequence model has become a staple in many organisations’ approach to influencing safety behaviours. The antecedent (activator or trigger) invokes certain behaviours. Positive reinforcement strengthens the behaviour that produces it, while negative reinforcement strengthens the behaviour that reduces the likelihood of the consequence.   

Modern social learning theory has evolved along this line. Remember that the potential for someone to behave in a particular way depends on the expectancy that this particular behaviour will lead to a specific reinforcement, which, in itself, is perceived to be advantageous – like Pavlov’s biscuits for his dogs.

We must bear in mind that operant conditioning is just one element in the pursuit of safety. Safety is at once both a state and a feeling. It’s essentially a by-product or effect of reinforcement. The things that make us feel safe are the same things that provide the reinforcement. It’s these things and not the feelings that we must clearly identify, and on which we must focus.

The notion of pursuit indicates a purpose, a striving and a desire. We take action to achieve the state and develop the feeling of safety, but pursuit is, in essence, also just a behaviour that must be reinforced by something.

Advent of observation

Social philosopher Bertrand Russell initially rated Pavlov’s work highly, concluding that he had made important contributions to developing a “philosophy of the mind”; however, he later went on to remark that in studies of animal behaviour, he could see strong links between the observer and the animal.

For example, American observers commented that their dogs “behaved like Americans, running around in random fashion”, while German dogs were found by their German observers to “behave like Germans, sitting and thinking”.

Russell points out the influence of observer bias and local culture on behaviour – or at the very least the influence of culture on our observations of behaviour. This wasn’t novel thinking, however. Back in the mid-1600s, English philosopher John Locke argued that people viewed the world around them in a way that they found congruent with their own personal values.

They approved of things they liked and those that they considered unpleasant were judged as that. This is important for behaviour in safety. If Locke’s logic tallies with Russell’s observations, could it be that we may make our own observational judgements based on how the situation looks and feels to us?

Reflexes and instincts

In the early 1920s, Harvard Professor William McDougall explored the differences between reflex and instinctive behaviour. He remarked that instinctive behaviour “involves the knowing of some thing or object, having a feeling in regard to it, and (then) a striving towards or away from it”.

McDougall referred to the instinct of moths to be attracted towards a light source and bees towards fragrant flowers. A few years later, in 1936, social psychologist Kurt Lewin, through his studies of group dynamics, widened the lens observing that behaviour was a function of the person and their interaction with their environment.



Looking inward and onward

Behaviour is not only about the observer’s view; self-knowledge is critical. We must suspend our preconceptions and actively engage with others in order to understand their behaviour and how the situation actually looks to them.

Burrhus Skinner, considered by many to be the Godfather of behaviouralism, advised: “A person, who has been made aware of himself by the questions he has been asked, is in a better position to predict and control his own behaviour.” He indicates that self-knowledge is shaped by society.

It’s only when we become aware that our behaviour is important to those around us, that it becomes truly important to ourselves. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s the links between risk-taking behaviours, human nature and accidents were further explored by people like Skinner, Albert Bandura and Jean Piaget.

It wasn’t until 1978 that the words safety and behaviour were truly connected when the fascinating study by Judith Komaki and Ken Barwick presented the results of perhaps the very first formal attempt to influence workers’ behaviour around safety.

Back to the future

The 1990s was the decade that “behavioural safety” was born with several American writers articulating their views on why people behave as they do with regard to safety at work. Concurrently, on the other side of the pond at the University of Manchester, a young research team including Dominic Cooper and Tim Marsh were realising their own hypotheses.

For both cohorts, the key question to answer was “what actually is behaviour-based safety (BBS)?”. Answers pointed towards the “psychology of safety” and how to identify the motivation for individual risk-taking and making adjustments to the working environment to regulate these behaviours.

As the new millennium dawned, behaviour was increasingly viewed as a solution to help organisations progress in safety.

Having systematically implemented engineering controls (such as machinery guarding) and administrative measures (including training and supervision), many organisations found themselves on a performance plateau and keen to revitalise their situation.

Dekker, Reason, Slovic, Hollnagel and Rasmussen weighed in, each adding new perspectives and breaking new boundaries. The science of behaviour has undoubtedly evolved over the last century to a point where BBS has become a core element for many companies today.

So, what have we learned?

The guiding principle when implementing a good BBS system is to strive to make the safe way to do a task the easy way. Key to this is utilising effective data-collection and analysis techniques; thoughtful design and implementation of changes to the workplace and/or procedures; as well as robust testing and verification that the new solutions are efficient. Employee engagement, input and feedback at every step is crucial to success.

Just pause for a moment to contrast this outline against the more traditional methods to improve safety, where a risk is identified and then control measures are imposed and monitored to bring about compliance. Most proprietary BBS programmes focus on moderating the “right now” by observing the current behaviours of workers and providing immediate feedback.

For example, “I notice that you’re not wearing safety glasses”, or “I see that you are using the appropriate tools for this job”. With frequent observations, it is anticipated that we are able to influence the person’s probable behaviour, but in order to truly influence behaviour we must go beyond the here and now and consider the perceptual behaviour of people.

This is heavily influenced by their past behaviour. Forward-thinking organisations are beginning to conduct their own semi-scientific explorations of how they effectively influence the behaviour of their workers.

So, what comes after BBS? The answer, I believe, is a more holistic strategy that covers all elements of safety culture and considers the psychological triumvirate of cognition, effect and behaviour (or in other words, how people think, feel and behave). We may need some more biscuits!

Special offer

RMS Switzerland’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing your safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in your organisation.

E-mail us at and mention this article to find out more. Receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

SHEQ MANAGEMENT readers receive a 20 percent discount when purchasing Sharman’s best-selling safety culture book titled: From Accidents to Zero. Go to: and enter the code SHEQSA20.

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman (left) is chief executive and Darren Sutton is senior partner at RMS, consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. Find out more at RMS’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in an organisation. E-mail us at: and mention this article to find out more and receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

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