Developing a Safety Culture That Understands Human Behavior

By: Vice President of Safety Jeff Palombo and Director of Safety Development Corey Kennedy

This week, our industry celebrates Construction Safety Week with the theme, “Connected. Supported. Safe.” It’s an opportunity for everyone in construction to reflect on how safety is a connection both seen and felt, uniting everyone on a jobsite, across a company and throughout our industry. It’s a reinforcement that each of us – company executives, project leadership teams, safety managers, field personnel, trade contractors and individuals – have a responsibility to each other.

A safety culture can only take root if everyone in the organization feels that connection and has support from the top of the company down to their peers. But we also know that it takes more than training, policies and procedures to create a safe workplace. It takes an understanding of human behavior, which is at the core of the Human Performance approach to safety. It’s not surprising, then, that Human Performance aligns with the “Connected. Supported. Safe.” theme.

The Human Performance philosophy has been called “safety differently” because it challenges us to think beyond individual actions of compliance or noncompliance and to recognize that the work environment that connects us influences our behavior. The physical environment, including expectations and pressures, culture, and our state-of-mind all influence the decisions – safe or unsafe – we make. The “connected” in Safety Week reminds us that safety is determined by the way we manage that environment, not by individual actions. The “supported” reminds us how we can use Human Performance to foster even higher levels of safety.

While Human Performance brings a different perspective to safety, it is not an “instead of.” All the elements of an effective safety program – policies and procedures, training, top-down support and management commitment – are foundational.

At Robins & Morton, we saw that 10 years ago when we started our Human Performance journey, and Construction Safety Week presents us an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of our safety program. A decade ago, we had a strong safety program and a growing safety culture. But accidents were still happening. It seemed we had reached a plateau. That was unacceptable.

That’s when we started to look at the Human Performance approach to safety. Human Performance, which has been widely adopted by such industries as commercial aviation, begins with the understanding that people are fallible and make mistakes. When you acknowledge that, it forces you to look beyond policies and procedures. Human Performance helps us realize that accidents are rarely willful actions – most people want to do the right thing and work safely.

That prompts the question: why do accidents happen? Human Performance tell us it is the operating system – in short, everything that makes up the work environment, the way we manage it and how people react in it. In Human Performance, we look at why people do things, not just what they did. We recognize that accidents – and near misses – don’t happen only because people break rules, they happen because the action seemed to make sense. Think of the common risks so many of us take in our lives outside of work. We stand on a chair instead of a proper step ladder because it’s convenient. We look at our phone screens when we shouldn’t because we’re juggling multiple priorities. Or we leave a garden hose where it can be a trip hazard because we’re in a hurry to do something else. The work environment is no different: we’re juggling multiple priorities and deadlines while dealing with distractions.

Through that perspective, we see that team members do not cause events. They trigger latent conditions that lie dormant in the workplace. These latent conditions are termed error precursors – factors that increase the likelihood that an event will occur. Precursors are broken down into four categories: task demands, work environment, individual capabilities and human nature. Examples of error precursors include time pressure, repetitive actions, unfamiliarity with the task, fatigue, distractions, complacency, mindset, mental shortcuts, lack of experience and changes. If these precursors sound familiar, it’s because Human Performance can be applied to more than safety – the same factors that contribute to workplace events can contribute to errors in almost any other area of work, or life. In fact, recognizing error precursors in our surroundings can make us safer on and off the job.

The primary goal of the Human Performance philosophy is to better understand human error and contributing factors so that we can be more effective in reducing error likely conditions and the consequences of events that are triggered by them. In other words, safety is not just the absence of accidents, it’s the absence of conditions that can contribute to human error. At Robins & Morton, this helped us understand why our safety performance plateaued – enforcing and adding rules can take us only so far. To pursue excellence in safety, we need to look at all the factors that contribute to events. And, when they cannot be removed, we implement defenses and/or consequence controls.

We see numerous examples of defenses and consequence controls in the common act of driving a vehicle. Most of us have experienced rumble strips – pavement grooves to alert us when we’re drifting onto the shoulder. According to the rules, we’re supposed to stay in the lane. We’re also supposed to be alert, pay attention and avoid distractions. But we’re fallible, and precursors – distractions, the monotony of freeway driving – increase the likelihood that we’ll stray out of our lane. And if that defense fails, the safety features in our vehicles are consequence controls.

The rate of fatal vehicle accidents has dropped to roughly one-third its peak in the 1930s, while the number of miles driven has almost tripled. The improvement can be attributed, in large part, to safety improvements that recognize driver fallibility. Human Performance challenges us to bring that same understanding to workplace safety.

In Human Performance, when a workplace event occurs, we view it as a learning opportunity rather than focusing on blame. That moves us away from what can be referred to as a “crime-and-punishment” model to a more just safety culture in which we look at all the contributing factors. That doesn’t give license to blatantly disregard safety. But, by eliminating the fear of reprisal, it creates a trusting environment that allows everyone to learn, which, in turn, drives continuous improvement.

Of course, there’s much more to implementing a Human Performance-based operating system, including proven processes and tools. At Robins & Morton, we have a two-day course to ground our salaried field team members in Human Performance. A program focusing on HP as a whole, as well as each principle, guides our training for our craft team members. We’re also integrating Human Performance into our onboarding to share our philosophy with trade partners and provide a refresher for R&M team members. Those efforts are supporting a workplace in which team members are connected, supported and safe. It’s helping us see that everything in the workplace is connected, while encouraging us to connect with each other to promote safe behaviors.

At the same time, Human Performance encompasses supporting our team members through safety programs that recognize human fallibility and an approach that is understanding and empathetic.

In short, a safety philosophy that understands human behavior can accomplish more than one that simply tries to control it.