In 1936, Kurt Lewin wrote a simple equation that improved the way we think about human behaviour.
He postulated that behaviour (B) is a function of the person (P) and the environment (E) or as it is commonly written B = f(P,E). This is known as Lewin’s Equation. From a personal safety perspective:
P = Personal traits, such as skills and habits
E = Environment, such as external rules, processes and procedures to control behaviour
Note that although both parts are always in play, P comes first. The reason is P is the most important. In other words, behaviour is more of an inside-out process than an outside-in one.
First Generation Safety - Dealing with E
This phase involved management science and started in the 1970s. It focussed exclusively on the E part of the equation. Making sense at the time, it was all about ridding the world of hazards to prevent people from coming into contact with them.
It soon became apparent that this strategy alone wasn’t going to prevent all incidents because removing all hazards is just not possible. So systems consisting of rules, processes and procedures were developed to specify precautions around the remaining hazards. Educating people on the hazards and precautions through inductions, training, consultation, etc became standard.
First Generation Safety improved E by focusing on it. This resulted in a considerable improvement in safety, but there were still too many incidents.
Second Generation Safety – Using Conscious P to Continue to Deal with E
This phase saw social science (psychologists and sociologists) exert their influence in the 1980s. It focused on using deliberate choices to improve E further. Using the latest thinking and behavioural models at the time (Skinner et al), the main tenet was that people made poor deliberate choices because they weren’t thinking enough about their safety.
The solution involved increasing safety interactions so people could appreciate the importance of safety. The belief centred on the premise that if safety was a value, or people cared enough about safety, they would keep safety “front-of-mind” and make safer deliberate choices.
Second Generation Safety also improved E but this time using conscious P to do so. This resulted in a moderate improvement in safety, but there were still too many incidents.
Organisations Hit the Wall – What needs to be added?
Not many organisations have moved beyond Second Generation Safety. Even though the new view of safety, Safety II or Safety Differently have been perceived as something new and revolutionary, they are still part of Second Generation Safety. The reason is that it is still about improving E, albeit through use of conscious P.
For years, business leaders lamented “we have eliminated hazards, educated workers and helped them make safer deliberate choices, but there are still too many incidents, what else can we do?”
The problem with Second Generation Safety is that it brings with it a flawed premise from psychology, disproven by the hard evidence uncovered by neuroscience. We now know we are not wired to keep safety front-of-mind and make safer deliberate choices. Human beings are wired to become consciously engaged when things are novel or different. Neuroscience has shown we do most things in an automated fashion because we have done them plenty of times before without incident.
Third Generation Safety - Dealing with the Whole P
This new phase involves using the latest research from neuroscience to help people become habitually safer. It doesn’t exclude anything from First or Second Generations, but adds an important piece.
Neuroscience has given us a window directly into the brain, providing for the first time, an understanding of what is actually going on (the whole P).
We’ve learned a lot in the last 10 years, but two key findings stand out:
Up to 95% of the deliberate choices we thought we were making are shaped largely by subconscious processes.
Neurochemicals play a significant role in both, our decision making at critical moments such as when we’re rushing, frustrated, fatigued and pre-programming subconscious routines to form skills and habits.
The combination of subconscious processes and neurochemicals control our behaviour in a way never imagined before. Importantly, it all happens below our conscious awareness, but the neuroscience shows they undeniably influence what we do. And because it all happens below our conscious awareness, most people catastrophically underestimate how much goes on in our subconscious.
Fortunately, this new information is filtering its way into safety, helping us improve our understanding of incident causation, albeit slowly.
Whereas First Generation was about eliminating hazards and educating workers and Second Generation was about safer deliberate choices, Third Generation is about influencing the subconscious to shift its automated behaviours to safer ones.
When we think of Third Generation in terms of Lewin’s Equation, it’s clear we are now dealing with the whole P, in a way Lewin could not have imagined. Our understanding of the human brain and why we do what we do will change the way we manage behaviour, totally.
Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. Sylvestre, C. (2017). Third Generation Safety: The Missing Piece.
Skinner, B. F. "The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis", 1938 New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.