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What Do You Want Me to Do, Exactly?

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Doug Hamilton

It is generally accepted that around 80 - 85% of workplace ‘accidents’ are traceable to some specific human behavior, either at the time of the accident or preceding it. Therefore, to achieve improvement, it is necessary to understand the root cause(s) of the unsafe behavior taking place; and how that behavior can be replaced by new, safe behavior. Many organizations recognize behavior as the strategic route to improvement. They have spent time and effort on improving systems and processes – rightly so – then see their safety performance ‘plateauing’. Addressing behavioral issues at this point forms the next crucial step towards continuous improvement.

There are several models available on the market place. However, any valid behavioral approach has to be based on the proven ABC (Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence) model. Other models which have the ‘behavioral’ label should be tested against this standard. The ABC model indicates that to change behavior, one has to change the consequences experienced after the behavior takes place. It is often the case that existing unsafe behavior either goes unnoticed, or in many cases, a personal ‘reward’ exists for the person when it does takes place.

So how do we change behavior?– In order to implement a sustainable program, there are several principles which have to be present. Typically, these involve the following elements:
*Environment-Management and workforce come to terms with their existing safety culture, and what they need to do to improve it
*Awareness- Training delivered to all levels of the workforce to raise awareness of the correct approach
*Preparation- Baselining of existing safety performance in the organization, and identifying the Key Safe Behaviors which go into improvement
*Measurement-Cycle of observation, feedback, goal setting and continued improvement
*Ownership-All levels of the organization recognize that the success of the program rests with them, and change their own behavior to deliver     ongoing improvement

All of that sounds great, so why is it that feedback from the front line of some behavioral programs reads like this (posted recently on our web site from a person who contacted us to seek our help in rejuvenating safety performance at his workplace):

“I am a believer in behaviour based safety. I have, however, never been a believer in the way it has ever been put forth by the so called professionals. Why?  Well the few reasons below come from much thought and 30+ years of experience.

  • The so-called "observations" by rank and file employees are basically viewed as a means of "ratting-out" each other, and this undermines employee harmony
  • It tends to encourage employees to look for things to write up.
  • It encourages "pencil whipping".
  • Often safety programmes are little more than a bunch of rules
  • The sad thing is that this behaviour-based safety involvement is "coerced" employee involvement which I am thoroughly opposed to. But, at least in the short term it works. And since most companies think in the short-term and really don't care about their employees beyond what they can get out of them in the short-term, it's what they push”.

Ouch! The saddest part about this feedback is that the person says he believes in the principle of BBS – but obviously not the practice. Where did it go wrong?

The Oxygen of any BBS programlies in ‘Positive Reinforcement’ of the right behavior. (The term ‘Positive Reinforcement’ is normally shortened to ‘R+’) Any program which does not have this element is relying on ‘Negative Reinforcement’, where the people being expected to behave safely are doing so, because they feel they are under threat of punishment if they don’t. And any behavioral scientist will tell you that Negative Reinforcement will never deliver a high performance on the behavior you want. So, if you want more safe behavior, start delivering some R+ when it takes place. And the sooner the R+ is delivered after the behavior, the better; this has the greatest impact. Sadly, some so called ‘behavioral’ programs fail to address this need for R+ at all.

Some suppliers of behavioral programs will smile benignly at this point, and say that their program delivers R+. How, exactly? They will list things like:

  • Employees will feel safer
  • They get verbal feedback on their safe behavior
  • They get some constructive feedback on how to behave more safely
  • They feel that someone is looking out for them
  • They feel they can start looking out for others

These are worthy, and noble, forms of R+. And in the long run, they may well form part of the organizational norms. But did our person providing feedback in the example above, experience these forms of R+, or indicate that any of his colleagues did? Believing that this will work from day one is akin to believing that drivers will welcome a new speed limit enforced by multiple police patrols. The drivers will be safer, won’t they? And if they do transgress, they have that policeman to give them some feedback on how to drive slower – as well as threaten them, with a loss of their license. The trouble is that if you want the safe behavior, it’s a lot easier to negatively reinforce it, by sending out the policemen, than think about delivering R+ for the safe behavior of driving within the speed limit.

Now have a think about your workplace. What positive reinforcement can you deliver for safe behavior? Even the so-called ‘positive reinforcement’ of verbal feedback on safe behaviors, is often received as patronizing, condescending and demeaning – especially where it exists outside of a meaningful business relationship between worker and manager / supervisor.

If you were to ask your staff what they want, they would probably respond ‘cash’. Apart from the moral argument against this, we would argue that your money is better spent delivering tangible reinforcement (rewards in the form of gifts selected by your staff). There are studies which demonstrate that a tangible reward has up to six times more impact than cash in affecting performance. Of course, you will still need to use negative reinforcement from time to time. In fact, studies have shown that the best performing environments are where the ratio of positive / negative reinforcement is about 4 / 1. But don’t expect high performance on a particular behavior, if all you use is negative reinforcement in an attempt to get it.

It was for this purpose that Bill Sims developed SmartcardTM, a recognition and reward system which equips all levels of staff in the organization with the ability to spot and reinforce the correct behaviors for safety. The use of SmartCardTMis wedded to an experienced and flexible behavioral consulting approach, to give you a complete behavioral change solution with the following features:
*Environment-Workplace assessment to understand existing issues, and develop a bespoke program for you
*Awareness-Training on how to deliver positive and negative reinforcement, including use of SmartCardTM,to all levels of staff
*Preparation- Developing Key Safe Behaviors from your safety data, to form the basis for improvement; tailoring these to SmartCards
*Measurement-Allying the use of SmartCardTMtoobservation, group feedback, and continued improvement
*Ownership-Enabling Smartcard to be used for reinforcement of management and supervisory behaviors as well as at workforce level



Client: DuPont, Kinston, North Carolina
Dates: 2000-2004
Scope: Introduction, roll out and maintenance of recognition system using tangible rewards, to rejuvenate existing safety systems

DuPont is well known in the safety world for their STOP behavioral safety process.

At the core of the process is a series of observations, where the observer looks for safe behavior in the working patterns of the people he is observing. The observer then offers feedback to the person being observed on safe and unsafe behavior. The theory is that new attitudes towards safety will be developed in the long term, as a result of the observation and feedback process.

While this undoubtedly will generate a change in behavior – and therefore can be viewed as a success in its aims – STOP’s main flaw is that it relies principally on negative reinforcement to change behavior. Behavioral scientists will attest to the fact that negative reinforcement will not create and sustain a high performing environment.

The DuPont facility in Kinston, North Carolina, was a facility where the existing observation process was in need of re-vitalizing. The use of a specific incentive program designed by Bill Sims was introduced, to offer a more positive style of reinforcement for safe behavior. The program ran for a period of three years, until the facility was sold to another company. During that time, there was a peak workforce of around 3500 staff on site. Lost time injuries were reduced to zero for a period of almost three years.

This was only one of the many DuPont sites where Bill Sims Company has worked over the past 25 years. The reinforcement solutions have not all been based around SmartCardTM, but have all worked on the premise of positive reinforcement for safe behavior, using tangible rewards.

Louis Barrow, who was the Responsible Care Manager for Safety / Health / Environment at the site, comments:

“This is to confirm that I was the Responsible Care Manager (Safety / Health / Environmental) at the Kinston, North Carolina site for DuPont. This was part of the Textile Fibres Department, employing c.3500 people, at one time. We were able to set records for DuPont, and the Kinston site, by using the incentive programs from Bill Sims; in fact we were able to reduce all loss time injuries to zero for almost three years. We found individual and group recognitions / incentives as the best program our people were willing to support, and the operations personnel to buy into. I will be honored to talk with your prospective clients about what we did.”

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