This paper discusses the behavior-based approach in promoting workplace safety. It discusses how this approach largely involves the employees and how an organization’s management team must provide a supportive environment in order to facilitate the implementation of the various components that the approach entails. The behaviorism theory is also discussed as the basis for this approach where it is proposed that people behave in response to antecedents and that their behaviors are either repeated or avoided based on the consequences. Moreover, this paper discusses some of the advantages to using this approach as supported by empirical evidence that is obtained from the findings of various researchers. Lastly, this paper provides some recommendations on how a behavior-based approach can be introduced into the workplace in order to promote safe behaviors.
Keywords: behavior, workplace, safety, antecedent, consequence
Everyday, employees are faced with various types of job demands that can come in the forms of work overload, emotional conflict, or administrative hassles, which require certain levels of psychological and physical effort, and which can lead to job dissatisfaction, in turn leading to decreased productivity, and absenteeism (Nahrgang, Morgeson & Hofmann, 2011). Moreover, high-risk environments and physically demanding or cognitively challenging jobs, as well as exposure to hazardous materials, can lead to injuries, workplace accidents, or fatalities.
One of the techniques used for developing a good OHS is the behavior-based approach, which centers on a safety-oriented culture among employees within the workplace. In this regard, this paper discusses what the behavior-based approach is, what the psychological theories are that serve as the foundation for this approach, and what empirical evidence shows in support of the effectiveness of this approach. Finally, this paper discusses the steps that must be taken when implementing this approach in the workplace.
Definition of the Behavior-based Approach to Workplace Safety
The behavior-based approach to workplace safety is a process where workers are involved in the definition of the ways by which they are most likely to be injured (Kalia, 2008). The employees’ input is sought and their participation is requested in the observation of their colleagues’ progress with regards to the reduction of at-risk behaviors. Its main components include problem solving, data analysis, verbal feedback, posted feedback, observation, and goal setting (Krause, Seymour & Sloat, 1999).
With this approach, employees are accountable for their safe and unsafe behaviors where safe behaviors are encouraged and unsafe behaviors are corrected. This approach advocates that employees can largely influence organizational safety and that their behaviors serve as the primary basis for behavioral change. It’s a company-wide initiative that is driven by employees and is supported by the management team. It has the purpose of identifying safe and unsafe behaviors and the possibilities for injury, as well as of communicating the risk and identifying the solutions that promote safety.
The successful implementation of a behavior-based approach is based on adherence to seven principles, namely the following: 1.) That the intervention should be focused on observable behavior; 2.) That the external factors affecting the behavior should be identified in order to understand and improve the behavior; 3.) That activators should be used for directing the behavior while consequences should be used for motivating them; 4.) That positive consequences should be used to motivate behavior; 5.) That the scientific method should be applied for improving intervention; 6.) That theory should be used for integrating information and not for limiting the possibilities; and 7.) That interventions should be designed with consideration of the employees’ attitudes and internal feelings (Geller, 2005).
Theoretical Basis for the Behavior-based Approach
Many of the behavior-based efforts that aim to promote workplace safety are based on the theory that all behaviors result from antecedents and consequences (Smith, 1999). As proposed by B. F. Skinner (Smith, 1999), antecedents trigger observable behaviors while consequences either discourage or enforce the repetition of such behaviors. When applied to the behavior-based approach to workplace safety, observable safe behaviors are identified and in turn, the antecedents that encourage them are also identified. Conversely, the antecedents that discourage safe behavior are also determined and removed.
According to the behaviorism theory, consequences or reinforcements that are immediate, positive, and certain – for example, rewards – will encourage employees to continue to observe safety on the job. On the other hand, negative consequences that are certain and negative – for example, punishments – will discourage unsafe behaviors. In other words, the behaviorism theory proposes that consequences can be used to change people’s behavior where positive and negative reinforcements can be used to make the employees behave in a certain way.
Effectiveness of the Behavior-based Approach
The ease of administration and the straightforwardness of the behavior-based approach make it cost-effective (Kalia, 2008). According the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, organizations can save up to $6 for each dollar invested on the implementation of a safety and health program. This is because a lot of profit needs to be gained in order to make up for a single injury. Moreover, this cost can increase further, depending n the nature of the injury (Milam-Perez, 2005).
In addition, this approach makes it easy for the on-site personnel who monitors the target behaviors to assess the safety improvements. As well, this makes the employees feel that they are valued by the senior management team and that the management team is truly concerned about their welfare.
In Petro-Canada, for example, not only did the management team introduce a zero-harm culture, but senior managers also visited the facilities and field sites to obtain feedback from their employees with regards to their wellness, safety, and health concerns (Broadbent, 2006). This provided the front line employees with a chance to meet the leaders and also provided the leaders with insight on how they can further ensure a safe workplace for their employees and promote a safety-oriented behavior within the organization.
As Broadbent (2006) proposes, Nahrgang, Morgeson & Hofmann (2011) also assert that employee engagement can promote workplace safety in that employees who are engaged in their jobs are more capable of controlling the various types of situations that they encounter in the workplace; thus, limiting the number of injuries, accidents, and other adverse events. Moreover, research has shown that safety communication and compliance with safety activities and procedures can avert workplace injuries, accidents, and unsafe behavior (Nahrgang, Morgeson & Hofmann, 2011).
Similarly, a longitudinal study conducted by Krause, Seymour & Sloat (1999) showed that organizations that implemented a behavior-based approach to workplace safety experienced a 26 percent improvement on safety on the first year and a 69 percent improvement by the fifth year. The approach used consisted of employee involvement, action planning, data analysis, performance feedback, behavioral observation, and organizational assessment.
However, even with efforts to implement a behavior-based approach in promoting workplace safety, such efforts can fail if the scope is narrow, that is, if the focus is on changing behavior rather than on addressing the causes of at-risk behavior (Clancy, n.d.). They can also fail if they are not tailored specifically to the organization’s culture and characteristics or if they are poorly integrated with the organization’s safety management systems. It should be noted, though, that as Broadbent (20006, p. 20) asserted, the absence of a safety culture can result in an organization “having the most number of fatalities and severe injuries” within its industry.
Steps for Introducing the Behavior-based Approach in the Workplace
When introducing the behavior-based approach in the workplace, the critical behaviors that need to be targeted must first be defined (DePasquale & Geller, 1999). Next, these behaviors should be observed in a particular work setting and the observations recorded. After establishing a considerably stable baseline measure of the rate, duration, and frequency of the behavior, an intervention must be implemented in order to change the behavior in a corrective way. One intervention can be the introduction of antecedents or consequences that will change the probability of the employee’s response to certain situations. In addition, other interventions can include the modification of the employees’ workstations and the removal of environmental barriers.
With the great importance accorded to workplace safety, organizations use the behavior-based approach for promoting a safety-oriented culture. This approach is highly centered on employees where each employee is responsible for observing safety and where each is accountable for their behavior. On the other hand, the management team is responsible for providing an environment that is supportive of safe behaviors through the establishment of a feedback and rewards system. It is based on the behaviorism theory where antecedents trigger behavior while consequences ether enforce or discourage the behavior.
Although behavior-based efforts aren’t always effective, this is mostly due to the incorrect or ineffective implementation of the said approach. However, for the most part, the companies that do implement the approach in the proper way achieve positive results where they not only realize cost savings but also promote job satisfaction among their employees. They not only have healthy employees. They also have employees who feel valued by their organization’s management team.
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