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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine


Letters to the editor are always welcome. Please try to keep them under 400 words.

Behavioural observations

In the last issue (page 44) Professor Andrew Hopkins shared his scepticism about safe behaviour observation programmes. After reading his views I would also have been sceptical had I not had an understanding of what a competent programme should include.

My view, and the research supports this, is that safe behaviour observation programmes can be effective as long as they include key components. In fact, if any consultant attempted to implement a safe behaviour observation programme of the kind Hopkins suggested, the consultant should be thrown out of the building (along with their invoice).

By addressing some of his concerns, I think it will be shown that we agree far more than we disagree on what to include in a comprehensive safety management system.

Hopkins states that safe behaviour observations systems are based on the belief that 95% of accidents are caused by unsafe behaviours. I would argue that is actually over 99%. However, in this percentage I would also include the behaviours of managers and other executives who set the scene for other unsafe frontline behaviours to occur. Hopkins suggests that safe behaviour programmes are doomed to fail if they don’t include the behaviour of managers. I totally agree. Any safety programme must include the actions of managers and hold them accountable for their decisions.

Hopkins suggests that a safe behaviour observation programme focuses on monocausality and tends to blame the worker after an accident. Any immature safety process will do exactly this: investigate a single cause and blame the person having the accident. A coherent safe behaviour programme, however, attends to both these shortcomings by conducting a no-fault incident analysis. As there is rarely a single cause of an accident, an analysis is conducted on all of the critical factors both upstream and downstream of the incident, including systems, conditions, and both management and worker behaviour.

This analysis seeks to find cause, not blame. After any accident, it can almost be guaranteed that the same behaviours and/or conditions have occurred elsewhere. This means the analysis is likely to find system errors rather than an isolated error of an individual.

Seeking cause rather than blame is not easy to do. Hopkins is correct in that there is a “human tendency to allocate blame when explanation comes to an end.” As a consultant, one of the constant challenges I face is to encourage clients to look at cause rather than blame (this applies to all management areas and not just safety). Hopkins and I agree therefore than monocausality is a fallacy, and blame has no part in any safety system.

He also suggests that observation programmes only focus on the lowest level of the hierarchy and miss hazards that are not obvious. Any safety process must attend to hazards. The process must eliminate, isolate, or minimise the hazard and must attempt to control the hazard from the highest level of the hierarchy as possible – to do otherwise is just plain dumb. Once again, Hopkins and I agree.

While Professor Hopkins and I may not agree on everything, we do agree that you can create a culture of safety by having a comprehensive safety management system, one which may include a coherent safe behaviour programme.

KYLE McWILLIAMS, PhD Corporate Learning Christchurch

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