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The Role of Safety Habits

The cover of the February 2016 issue of Professional Safety, which features an article on establishing safety habits by SafeStart's safety consultant Tim Page-Bottorff

This is an excerpt from Tim Page-Bottorff’s article “The Habit of Safety: Forming, Changing & Reinforcing Key Behaviors” originally published in the February 2016 issue of Professional Safety.

How can OSH professionals encourage more consistent, safe behavior? The key is to focus on developing and reinforcing critical safety habits. Habits are an important part of the brain’s framework. They allow individuals to perform routine behaviors without needing to make small decisions every step of the way. In fact, research has shown that habits make up approximately 40% of human behavior. When discussing habits, people often think of small daily behaviors, such as brushing one’s teeth in the morning or wearing a seat belt in the car. But it is not hard to recognize how habits influence safety behaviors, from donning PPE at shift start-up to keeping a work area tidy and free of trip hazards.

Many daily actions are driven by routine because it helps conserve mental reserves for concerns that require active consideration. But this also has drawbacks. Most notably it can cause people to perform actions on autopilot when they should be paying attention. Furthermore, certain habits may be an immediate concern in the workplace, particularly if hazardous energy is present. For example, moving without looking could have potentially serious consequences on the shop floor.

It is possible to override habits by keeping a task front of mind, but doing so requires focus—and people can only concentrate on a few actions at once. Safety managers know this through firsthand experience. BLR surveyed nearly 1,300 safety professionals regarding slips, trips and falls in the workplace. While 85% of respondents believe that reminding workers about safe walking and housekeeping practices improves safety performance, most think the benefit is only temporary. Eventually, as employees shift their attention elsewhere, they revert to old habits.

This poses a particular problem for OSH professionals, as most work environments are full of distractions that threaten to derail employees’ concentration on safety. And, nearly all industries are dominated by a single factor that undeniably propels its way to the front of most employees’ minds and shakes their concentration on safe behavior: stress.

Stress can manifest in several different forms. For example, fatigue is a form of bodily stress and it can be difficult to stay focused when tired. In other stressful moments, such as when feeling rushed or frustrated, it is easy to revert to routines. A study by University of Southern California researchers found that in times of stress people are particularly prone to slipping back into habits.

Habits only provide a limited benefit in combating many human factors, and if a site’s safety issues include workers getting injured when they are rushing, frustrated or tired, then that site’s OSH team should consider concentrating improvement efforts on human factors training. However, habits can be an effective failsafe against complacency. An OSH team can teach people personal safety skills to maintain focus and fight complacency, but even then, nobody can maintain focus 100% of the time. That is where good habits are critical.

Read the full version of “The Habit of Safety: Forming, Changing & Reinforcing Key Behaviors” here.

Tim Page-Bottorff is an author, frequent conference speaker, and senior presenter at our workshops. You’ll want to catch his sessions at upcoming safety conferences or learn even more from him at a 2-day or 3-day workshop in one of these locations.

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