Behavioural-based safety put into context

Yesterday Associate Professor Tony LaMontagne spoke at the monthly networking meeting of the Central Safety Group in Australia.  His presentation was based around his research into job stress and its relationship with mental health.

LaMontagne was talking about the dominant position in personnel management where negative thoughts generate a negative working environment, one of stress, dissatisfaction and lower productivity.  SafetyAtWorkBlog asked whether this was the basis for many of the positive attitudinal programs, or behaviour-based safety programs, that are frequently spruiked to the modern corporations.

He said that this was the case and that such programs can have a positive affect on people’s attitudes to work.  But LaMontagne then expressed one of those ideas that can only come from outside an audience’s general field of expertise.  He said that the limitations of such programs are that they focus on the individual in isolation from their work.  He wondered how successful such a program will be in the long-term if a worker returns from a “happiness class” to a persistently large workload or excessive hours.  The benefits of the positive training are likely to be short-lived.

This presented the suggestion that positive training programs, those professing resilience, leadership, coping skills and a range of other psychological synonyms, may be the modern equivalent of “blaming the worker”.  The big risk of this approach to safety is that it ignores the relationship of the worker with the surrounding work environment and management resources and policies.  Even the worker who is furthest from head office does not work in isolation.

It is unclear what the positive training programs aim to achieve.  Teaching coping skills provides the worker with ways of coping with work pressures, but what if those pressures are unfair or unreasonable?  What if those pressures included bullying, harassment, excessive workloads?  Will the employer be meeting their OHS obligations for a safe and healthy working environment by having workers who can cope with these hazards rather than addressing those hazards themselves?

Professor LaMontagne reminded the OHS professionals in attendance yesterday that the aim of OHS is to eliminate the hazards and not to accommodate them.  He asked whether an OHS professional would be doing their job properly if they only handed out earplugs and headphones rather than try to make the workplace quieter?

Recently SafetyAtWorkBlog received an email about a new stress management program that involves “performance enhancement, changing the way people view corporate team dynamics”.  Evidence was requested on the measurable success of the program.  No evidence on the program was available but one selling point was that the company had lots of clients.  This type of stress management sales approach came to mind when listening to Professor Montagne.

When preparing to improve the safety performance of one’s company consider the whole of the company’s operations and see what OHS achievements may be possible.  Think long-term for structural and organisational change and resist the solutions that have the advantage of being visible to one’s senior executives but short on long-term benefits.

And be cautious of the type of approaches one may receive along the lines of programs that can change

“…high performance habits so employees can operate at 100% engagement and take their achievement to the next level while achieving a healthier culture in the workplace”.

Kevin Jones

Note: Kevin Jones is a life member of the Central Safety Group.  The CSG is just finalising its website ( information of forthcoming meetings will be available.

7 thoughts on “Behavioural-based safety put into context”

  1. Kevin,

    Your open and honest comments about having a BBS program are extremely refreshing. I have seen and heard of too many companies who still believe its the answer to all of their problems. Personally I have suggested they buy a mirror first but that subtle suggestion is always misunderstood.

  2. Like Kevin I attended this presentation on Wednesday. For me the key take-out was where this sits in relation to the Pareto Principle.

    The data Prof LaMontagne presented looked at about 90-odd studies of workplace interventions to reduce stress, about half of which were peer reviewed. (Note: this & the next couple of comments are from my memory / interpretation of his words; if I have them off-beam I\’m happy to be corrected.)

    Of those where the only intervention was individually focussed, the majority did not demonstrate any positive impact on workplace health & safety indicators – people said they felt better, but there was no evidence of a long-term benefit to OHS.

    Conversely, those where there was a workplace-wide intervention, such as some kind of program to improve people\’s empowerment & control through changes in the workplace, showed marked improvements both in people\’s sense of wellbeing and in workplace safety metrics (such as occupational illness.)

    Hence my linkage to the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule. Individually-focussed interventions won\’t hurt, but they are among the \”useful many\” things that you might act on once you\’ve addressed the \”Vital Few\” – the 20-odd % of causes that make up 80-odd % of the problem. Those are the ones that, if you can find them and mitigate them, will transform OHS outcomes.

  3. This article has generated considerable attention and readers on this platform and other professional networks.

    Shelagh\’s comment caused my OHS brain to stress because there are phrases used that I don\’t easily understand or that I can\’t see fitting easily into OHS management systems. \”Values based leadership\” may be understood by HR professionals who have a better handle on psych issues but it needs explaining to me.

    Kevin Jones

  4. I read the comments with interest. We have developed with a partner, a work and well being approach that is analytical but also values based. If you know the real issues in the workplace – working with groups and individuals to help them resolve the issues around their work becomes a whole company approach. The values based leadership that is developed as part of the culture of the company can do much to change attitudes and promote well being and less mental stress and illness.

  5. I believe that BBS can have some safety benefits but such programs are best introduced when companies have reached a level of maturity in their safety management. The basics need to be done – the guarding, the commitment, the policies, the enforcement, the consultation …….

    If these elements are implemented correctly, a company will already be halfway to a system based on behaviour. But BBS should not be THE motivation for safety improvements early in a company\’s growth. Employees will be confused as the Regulator/legisaltion talks about a system of work, where the management or consultant tlaks about \”unsafe acts\” at the individual level.

    Too many BBS providers sell the programs as a cure-all. It\’s a bit like unhealthy food – good (in a whisper) \”as part of a well-balanced diet\”. I believe that OHS professionals and business owners need to establish the \”well-balanced diet\” first.

  6. A very interesting article and I am sure an equally valuable presentation.

    I believe that the misrepresentation of certain training and development is damaging to the industry of which we are part. I agree that false claims and lack of evidence similarly mean that companies sell training without the actual follow up and correct measures being in place.

    Critical to any development is the correction of other factors in organisations which are linked to the development need. There are behavioural workshops which do have evidence to support their improvement in performance. Training alone however will not achieve everything.

    A proper culture of organisational development with proper feedback and sustainability is also needed.

    Malcolm Dawes – Managing Director

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