What’s the Future of Behavioural Safety?

What’s Next After “Whack-a-Hazard” or “Whack-a-Person”?

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.