Some words make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and give me a serious rash. Compliance is very high on that list. The babble about culture in certain contexts is also found there. Behavioural change is another word that definitely has a place on that list. By all means, not because there is something inherently wrong with these things. In contrary, compliance, culture and behaviour have a place within safety. However, the way they are usually used rather renders them into something counterproductive and teleports them to the realm of Safety Myths.


Let us have a look at ‘behaviour’, after all this is a very popular term within safety and the subject of countless programs and interventions.

Why start a ‘behavioural change program’ in the first place? Often because there is a certain objective to be achieved, for example an improvement of safety, or to deliver products with quality and less ‘waste’. However, instead of investigating the most effective way to realise those objectives, often it is simply assumed that addressing behaviour will be the way to the desired success.

Why not, one might say. Behaviour is visible, humans are fallible and we see people working unsafely all the time. Therefore, it is only common sense to do something about this unsafe behaviour. Besides, wasn’t there some research that showed that 80% of all accidents are caused by human behaviour? (The answer to that question is: No! That number is based on the arbitrary counting of something that cannot be measured, but that aside).


This common approach of picking behaviour as the object of attention is not without problems. For starters, we might ask ourselves how you actually know that behaviour is the ‘problem’ you need to address in order to achieve your desired objectives. Approaching things that way sees behaviour as a cause for the failing of the system your in. In most cases, however, behaviour is rather a consequence of the system in which humans have to operate.

Secondly, behavioural interventions are often highly reductionist in nature. They look at the human and its behaviour in isolation. For example, one points out lack of motivation, or lack of safety awareness. It is like one pretends to look inside the human mind, then tries to improve awareness and conscious choices through safety campaigns or observation schemes and providing a couple of stimuli, be they positive or negative. Is it that simple? Not entirely, I think.

Conscious and Best

Being aware of what you do unconsciously can be pretty valuable. For example, it is important to try to make explicit out what assumptions we include into our risk assessments and decisions. Often it is there where the real problems hide. But being continuously aware of our unconscious processes is not doable in practice. Humans just do not have the mental capacity or resources for that. And sometimes it is even dangerous. Just try descending a staircase consciously considering each step. (Do hold that railing!!!)

Also, a common approach is to point out one particular behaviour as the way to success, through ‘best practices’ and the like. This, however, completely ignores the fact that (work) situations are dynamic. There is not one best way. In most situations, a required result can be achieved in various ways. By being so prescriptive, your behavioural change program might even destroy creativity and stand in the way of innovation.


Generally, I regard behavioural change programs as an indicator of an organisation choosing ‘the easy way out’. For the organisation and its managers, it is a very comfortable way to transfer the problem to the lower ranks in the hierarchy. People at the sharp end are just required to be more aware, to follow the rules, to care more about each other and safety and to be more open. That kind of stuff. It gives an appearance of seriously working on safety, but it leaves fundamental problems untouched. Yuck.


Mind you, paying attention to, and thinking about behaviour can be very useful. But why not trying to do this in a different way? For starters, let go of the assumption that behaviour is a problem. Usually this assumption is taken for granted, but what if we start seeing behaviour as a consequence? Or as an asset to be harnessed and used? In that case, make sure to pay plenty of attention to the conditions in which certain behaviour happens.

To analyse why things are the way they are in a workplace (or elsewhere) is extremely useful. Look at the work-as-done and ask yourself why things are done the way they are done. After that, do not focus that much on the behaviour, but rather on the system in which the behaviour happens. Like I said above: stop seeing behaviour as the cause, regard it as a consequence. Therefore, address for example conflicting goals, or the physical environment. If you replace a crossroad with traffic lights with a roundabout, literally no one will ever drive at red! Give me a phone with a proper keyboard instead of my iPhone and the number of typos while texting will dramatically decrease. No behavioural change program will ever equal those results.

Above article has been initially published in Linkedin and is reproduced here with author's kind permission

The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only. 


About Carsten Busch

Carsten has studied Mechanical Engineering, Safety and Law. He brings over two decades of experience in HSEQ Management from various railway and oil & gas related companies in UK and Europe. Currently he works as Senior Advisor Occupational Safety at Politidirektoratet, and is owner/founder of Carsten is an active member of the Dutch Society for Safety Science (NVVK). In May 2016, he published his first Safety book, the well-received Safety Myth 101.