The Psychology of Safety: Risk Perception and Safe Behavior

By Minter, Stephen G. | Occupational Hazards, October 1990 | Go to article overview

The Psychology of Safety: Risk Perception and Safe Behavior


Minter, Stephen G., Occupational Hazards


The Psychology Of Safety: Risk Perception And Safe Behavior

If your organization has been wearing blinders when it comes to identifying job risks, a behavior-based safety program may offer new insights into accident prevention.

It's ingrained in safety theory that accidents are caused by some combination of unsafe acts and unsafe conditions. Drawing on the work of H.W. Heinrich dating back to 1931, many safety professionals still cling to the idea that 85 percent of accidents are caused by unsafe behaviors.

Heinrich's accident causation theory has been controversial from the start, but few safety experts would dispute the idea that human behavior plays a very large role in accident causation. And given that fact, an increasing number of safety directors are applying the principles of behavioral psychology to their safety programs in an effort to involve employees more fully in safety.

"My feeling is this is the future of safety," contends James Kohn, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of health and safety at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Ind. "We've got to address the human element. Until we really focus in on this, we're going to continue to have problems."

Kohn says that while human performance plays a dominant role in accident causation, most safety programs are geared toward dealing with physical entities such as machine guards or personal protective equipment. The reason for that, he believes, is that it is easier to deal with tangible problems than human behavior with all of its attendant unpredictability.

Even in dealing with physical hazards, says Kohn, attention to behavior can have benefits. If managers and workers fail to correct physical hazards, for example, the chance of their causing an injury increases.

"Just think about workplace layout and design," says Kohn. "Most places do not have adequate storage for raw and finished products. Unless you keep on top of things, it's easy for congestion to result in housekeeping problems and hazardous conditions...All too often, you'll see operations that lack this type of storage capacity, but allow employees to simply forget about housekeeping, and that's what ends up getting them in trouble."

Safety experts say that behavior modification programs are well-suited to today's business organizations, which have fewer supervisors and more autonomous workforces.

"People have more and more discretion in the workplace," observes Albert Mangone, director of customer training and service -- retail, Loss Prevention Dept., Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., Boston, and an occupational safety lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We're no longer on production lines where you can watch that employee every minute of the day. The more discretionary time the employees have, the more it is necessary to do something of a reward or incentive nature for them in order to get them to identify and abate hazards in the work-place."

Model Behavior

A simple model for understanding the basic tenets of behavioral psychology is "ABC":

* "A" stands for antecedent, or anything that stimulates or triggers action.

* "B" stands for behavior, or any action that we take.

* "C" stands for consequence. A consequence is anything that follows a behavior.

"We can predict the amount of a given behavior that will occur based on the history of consequences for that behavior," says Thomas Krause, Ph.D., president of Behavioral Science Technology Inc., Ojai, Calif.

To illustrate this point, Krause cites the example of seatbelt use. "I may see an article in a paper about a crash where someone was killed and not wearing a seatbelt. That may be an antecedent that triggers me to wear a seatbelt," he explains. "But, if there are no consequences following that behavior and it occurs over a period of time with no consequences, I may stop wearing the seatbelt. …

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