Is safety excellence a matter of stopping risks or starting precautions? Should we focus on the “thou shalt nots” of safety, or encourage positive action? This topic directly impacts the question we have discussed before, “Is safety excellence a matter of achieving success or avoiding failure?” But beyond that philosophical point, let’s discuss the tools used for starting and stopping human behavior and their side effects.
The ultimate behavioral stopping tool is punishment. In the behavioral sciences, anything that tends to stop behavior is consider punishment and what makes it effective is the timing and probability. Negative consequences for behavior that are certain and timely tend to stop, or “extinguish” the behavior. But punishment does not automatically start another behavior in its place. Artificially-imposed punishment can also damage relationships and culture. It can be important to stop certain behaviors that present unacceptable risks or damage safety culture, and punishment might be the right tool for that job.
Starting tools for behavior include positive reinforcement and motivation. If the safety challenge is getting workers to identify risks, take precautions or participate in safety activities, these starting tools can be invaluable. Starting tools also are relationship and culture builders. Workers who help each other start better practices and improve performance tend to strengthen the bonds between themselves.
Determining the right tools for safety excellence involves accurately identifying exactly what behaviors need to be stopped or started. An effective safety strategy should include these distinctions.
-Terry L. Mathis
Terry L. Mathis is the founder and CEO of ProAct Safety, an international safety and performance excellence firm. He is known for his dynamic presentations in the fields of behavioral and cultural safety, leadership, and operational performance, and is a regular speaker at ASSE, NSC, and numerous company and industry conferences. EHS Today listed Terry as a Safety Guru in ‘The 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS in 2010, 2011 and 2012-2013. He has been a frequent contributor to industry magazines for over 15 years and is the coauthor of STEPS to Safety Culture Excellence, 2013, WILEY.