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Cracking the DNA of safety

Why accidents at work keep happening

Eugene Burke, Chief Science & Analytics Officer


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Human error and why it keeps happening


Major safety incidents have again brought home the importance of workplace safety,
and the economic and human consequences of unsafe acts. Sixty to eighty percent
of workplace accidents are attributed by various industry surveys to operator error1.
In 2008, the US Department of Labor reported the cost of accidents in the US to
be $1 billion a week in both direct and indirect costs. The UK Health and Safety
executive reported in 2004 that workplace accidents and work-related ill health cost
employers between 3.9 and 7.8 billion, and that the UK economy lost 39 million
working days due to accidents between 2003 and 2004. While statistics may vary,
there can be little doubt of the financial and human impact of accidents at work.

There will be employees


whose disposition to risk
is such that will they
take the risks that will
lead to an accident.

With the investment made by organisations in the training of employees, and in


complying with health and safety regulations, the inevitable question is why does
human error play such a significant part in major incidents? Put simply, why is this
investment in training and safety compliance not enough to avoid major incidents and
the ongoing cost of accidents at work?
We at SHL see safety as relying on three key factors. The first is the design of
equipment and facilities such as production plants and installations where safety
critical work is undertaken. If these are well designed, with the operator and human
error in mind, then sciences such as ergonomics and human factors will have made
their contribution to mitigating against unsafe acts.
The second factor relates to the processes and procedures that govern the day-today operations of employees as well as responses to safety incidents. Here, training
and education are critical in raising awareness and knowledge, but knowing what
should or should not be done is clearly not enough to avoid accidents happening. As
a colleague pointed out to me recently, we all know the speed limits on our roads but
that doesnt mean that we all comply with those speed limits.
This brings us on to the third and possibly the most difficult safety factor to deal with
human behaviour. Our work with clients has consistently shown that, irrespective
of safety education and training programmes, there will be employees whose
disposition to risk is such that will they take the risks that will lead to an accident
or, possibly, a more catastrophic sequence of events. Without full knowledge
of the disposition to risk across its employees and contractors, we suggest that
organisations have an incomplete picture of the factors influencing the likelihood of
unsafe acts happening, and it is therefore not surprising that human error continues to
play a significant part in causing accidents in the workplace.

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Building a truly behavioural approach to safety


Let us begin by defining risk tolerance as the amount of risk that an individual or
group of individuals is willing to accept in the pursuit of a goal or objective. This
tolerance for risk will reflect beliefs about the consequences of actions, and those
with a higher tolerance for risk will tend to believe that either their actions will not
result in negative consequences or that they can somehow manage the extent of
those consequences. The key question is how can these dispositions be identified in
such a way as to provide tangible and actionable data to improve safety?

Risk tolerance is
influenced by deep
dispositions held by
individuals who are
more likely to be
involved in accidents.

Our work clearly shows that risk tolerance is influenced by deep dispositions held
by individuals who are more likely to be involved in accidents. These dispositions
influence the way they feel about risk as well as their perceptions of events which,
in turn, are reflected in the way they behave. Later in this paper we will share case
study materials that will show the relationship between these deeper dispositions
and actual accidents at both the individual and work group levels. For now, we will
explore these dispositions in a little more detail.
Our model of risk tolerance or orientation to safety is founded on five key behaviours.
These behaviours reflect underlying dispositions to take or to avoid risk that relate to
processes, whether the person has the disposition to plan ahead, pay attention to the
detail and to comply with policies and procedures. The model also encompasses the
disposition for someone to consider the impact of their behaviour and approach to
risk on others. This is reflected in providing support to the team or wider work group
and, irrespective of whether the person works alone or not, to keep people informed,
as well as showing responsibility by addressing safety issues and promoting the value
of safety in the workplace and across the organisation.
Figure 1: The Safety Five Behaviours
Processes Behaviours

People Behaviours

Planning ahead
Think forward, anticipate issues and plan for
contingencies

Teamwork and communication


Consult with others and encourage proactive
communication within and across work groups

Attention to detail
Check the detail and reward efforts and
achievements for getting quality right

Showing responsibility
Build awareness of responsibility to the
bigger team beyond immediate work tasks
and colleagues

Following procedures
Ensure that procedures and policies are
followed correctly

The relevance of these behaviours is apparent from recent recommendations


published through an oil and gas safety initiative, itself drawing on safety models in
other industries such as transportation2. The initiative provides case study materials
with short recommendations as to the actions that someone should take to address
similar events occurring in the future.

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Figure 2: The relevance of the Safety Five to safety initiatives


Processes Behaviours

Safety Initiative Recommended Tip

Planning ahead
Think forward, anticipate issues and
plan for contingencies

When planning a job, assess the


practical problems you will encounter
and how you will deal with them

Attention to detail
Check the detail and reward efforts and
achievements for getting quality right

A work site may have the best safety


culture in the world, but you cant rely
on the culture rubbing off on a new
team. Keep an eye on a new team to
verify that your high standards are
being adopted

Following procedures
Ensure that procedures and policies are
followed correctly

Procedures need to be prepared in


advance and reviewed by competent
persons.

People Behaviours

Safety Initiative Recommended Tip

Teamwork and communication


Consult with others and encourage
proactive communication within and
across work groups

Talk about the job at the work site.


Walk, point and mark the plant to be
worked on. Those doing a job should be
able to explain the job and their role in it

Showing responsibility
Build awareness of responsibility to the
bigger team beyond immediate work
tasks and colleagues

People will put up with poorly designed


equipment and make the best of it.
Designers cant foresee all situations.
Speak up if there is equipment that is
difficult to operate.

Safety surveys wont tell


you how people will act.

So, have recent organisational safety initiatives already embraced the SHL Safety Five
behaviours? To the extent that they are implicitly providing a basis for feedback and
for safety education, then the answer is maybe. However, in terms of direct and valid
intelligence on these behaviours and what that intelligence says about the people
factor in safety, then, with very few exceptions, the answer has to be no.
Why? Let us take the case of safety surveys. Such surveys will tell us about
how people perceive compliance with safety procedures, how well safety
is communicated within an organisation, and about the commitment that an
organisation is showing to best practice. But the one thing such surveys will not tell
you is how people will act and, directly, the behavioural risks that underlie and drive
risk at the individual and work group levels.
We argue that this direct data not only complements current safety practice and data
gathering in the form of surveys, but actually addresses a blind spot in current safety
practice. To put this argument across, we will now look at two case studies showing
how information on behavioural safety predicts actual accidents and incidents,
and we will follow these case studies with a description of how the data gathered
from a simple and efficient tool can be used to strengthen safety management in
organisations.

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Case study: evaluating risk among security personnel


Before we describe the first case study, let us introduce the concept of odds and
likelihoods. As we have alluded to above, risk is about perception of consequences
which, in turn, comes down to a judgement about the odds of something being
positive or negative. For example, if we think that there is a 50 : 50 chance that
something will happen in a certain way, then we can say the odds are even or 1 to 1.
In other words, the odds are no better than the chance offered by flipping a
coin and one or the other side landing face up.

Those classified as
higher behavioural risk
on the questionnaire
were five times more
likely to be responsible
for a vehicle accident.

If we observe a series of events and the outcomes are that eighty percent of the
time the outcome that we expect happens, then the odds are 80 : 20 or 4 to 1. In
the context of a financial investment, most of us would be happy with an investment
that has those odds and the associated likelihood of providing us with growth in that
financial investment.
Let us come back to safety and ask the question of the odds of an individual, the
potential source of human error, having an accident. Our argument is that, with data
on the dispositions that relate to the Safety Five, you can significantly improve your
knowledge of those odds. The first case study will serve to explain.
A major global provider of security services was concerned about why accidents and
other counterproductive outcomes seemed to be concentrated in some work groups
and not others, despite conducting safety audits and running regular educational and
training programmes.
Following administration of a short behavioural questionnaire3 to a sample
of employees, covering the Safety Five described earlier, the results were
evaluated alongside records of vehicle accidents, attacks on personnel as well as
absenteeism for a six month period. The data showed that those classified as
higher behavioural risk on the questionnaire were five times more likely to
be responsible for a vehicle accident 4, and were three times more likely to
be involved in an attack when compared to the rates for all employees in the
sample. The same high behavioural risk employees were also two and a half times
more likely to have been absent without authorisation in the six month period
examined. In summary, those who were lower on the Safety Five were far more likely
to be a source of accidents and other counterproductive outcomes in the workplace.
The substance of this finding is emphasised when the likelihood of an accident or an
attack is considered. In general, the odds of a vehicle accident were 19 to 1 against
while the odds of an employee experiencing an attack while performing their duties
were 3 to 1 against.

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Figure 3: Overall scores on the Safety Five, accidents and other


counterproductive outcomes in the workplace
Vehicle Accidents

Zero Accidents (A)

1 or more Accidents (B)

Odds (A:B)

High behavioural risk

80%

20%

4:1

All employees

95%

5%

19:1

Attack Incidents

Zero Incidents (A)

1 or more Incidents (B)

Odds (A:B)

High behavioural risk

58%

49%

1:1

All employees

74%

26%

3:1

Unauthorised Absences

Zero Absences(A)

1 or more Absences (B)

Odds(A:B)

High behavioural risk

80%

20%

4:1

All employees

90%

10%

10:1

Those lower on the


Safety Five are far more
likely to act impulsively,
deviate from procedures
and to fail to consider
the consequences of
their actions.

%s show the relative proportions for zero versus one or more recorded incidents for each type of incident
and for high behavioural risk versus all employees in the sample. High behavioural risk indicates low scores
on the Safety Five.

So, despite an environment where the chances of an accident were low, and where
the employer pursued an active programme of safety management, staff training and
communication, those lower on the Safety Five were much more likely to be involved
in an accident or an incident.
Why? Further research on the SHL safety model shows that those higher on the
Safety Five are far more likely to take a considered approach to their work and to
safety critical tasks, while those lower on the Safety Five are far more likely to
act impulsively, deviate from procedures and to fail to consider the consequences of
their actions.
We will come back to how the data gathered from such a study can be used to
improve safety management a little later in this paper, and we will now shift the focus
to look at entire populations of employees through a second case study in the oil
and gas industry. This case study focuses on the relationship between the frequency
of behavioural risk at different installations and the history of safety incidents at those
installations.

Case study: identifying areas of behavioural risk


within a global oil company
In this second study, we look at an international oil company operating oil rigs
(referred to as sites) in the North Sea. Having conducted a number of safety
initiatives, the company wanted to test whether the SHL behavioural questionnaire
could identify those sites where the history of incidents was highest, as well as
identify which specific work groups were more disposed to risk.

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Records of 571 incidents gathered over a two year period and classified into low,
medium and high severity by the client were analysed to identify the historical safety
profiles across the three offshore sites. Relatively few incidents were recorded as
high severity, but discussion with the company indicated that many of the medium
risk incidents represented near misses where a higher severity event could have
occurred. Accordingly, incidents were classified into the proportion of medium and
high versus low severity incidents at each site.
Incidents were also examined in terms of whether they affected an asset (e.g. a piece
of equipment) or involved injury to an employee or a contractor. The analysis showed
that the risk profiles across sites remained the same whether the incident data was
broken out into these specific types of incident or grouped into an overall safety
profile. As such, this overall profile was used to evaluate the relationship between
historical risk and behavioural risk across the three sites.

The data on levels of


behavioural risk showed
a clear association
with the likelihood of
medium to high risks
happening.

Data on behavioural risk were gathered through an online survey using the SHL
behavioural questionnaire which was well received by employees as indicated by high
completion rates (65% of questionnaires were completed within the first two weeks).
This data covered 195 employees and contractors, and provided information on the
site employed, their job level as well as their job role (i.e. the specialist role in which
they operated).
Figure 4 shows the association found between levels of behavioural risk (the
proportion of respondents classified as higher behavioural risk) and the two year
history of safety incidents at each site (the proportion of medium and high severity
incidents at each site).
At Site B, the odds over two years of a medium to high versus a low risk incident
occurring were approximately 60% : 40% or 1.5 : 1, approaching twice that expected
by chance alone. In contrast, the odds at Site C were essentially the opposite at
30% : 70% or around 1 : 2. Effectively, the odds were 2 : 1 against a medium to high
incident happening at Site C.
The data on levels of behavioural risk showed a clear association with the likelihood
of medium to high risks happening. At Site B, 40% of those surveyed were identified
as high behavioural risk, while at Site C 20% were identified as high behavioural risk.
That is, the odds of an employee or contractor being identified as high behavioural
risk were 2 : 1 at Site B when compared to Site C.
We have since expanded the analysis to show specifically where levels of behavioural
risk sit in the organisation and which behaviours need to be focused on to address
the people risks identified. In the next section of this paper, we will describe how
the data gathered from such a behavioural audit can be used to strengthen an
organisations management of safety and mitigation of the people risks critical to
successful safety management.

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Figure 4: Case of three North Sea platforms and comparison of behavioural risk
using the SHL safety model and previous two years incidents
60

Will perceptions of
safety actually result in
safe behaviours?

50
40
30
20
10
0
Site A
% behavioural risk

Site B

Site C
% actual safety incidents

Case study: taking a holistic approach to managing


safety and risk in the workplace
Many organisations use safety climate and safety culture surveys across their
organisations to provide data on how effectively safety is managed and communicated
to employees. While there is no doubt that these are useful tools, the question
posed in this paper still remains will perceptions of safety actually result in safe
behaviours? To paraphrase a widely used saying without data on the behavioural
dispositions underlying risk tolerance, how will organisations know whether
their people will walk the safety talk? A current client engagement will help
to show how the SHL safety model is helping to strengthen an organisations
understanding of safety risk by incorporating direct data on the Safety Five.
The client is a global leader in manufacturing who is collecting data across work
groups and job levels, managers, supervisors and operational staff to build up a more
complete picture of safety risk and risk tolerance. In additions to more traditional
survey and safety audit information, the project will include the SHL behavioural
safety questionnaire. The data from the questionnaire will be used at two levels.
At the macro level, the data will provide intelligence of where the organisation has
sources of behavioural best practice. That is, which managers and supervisors, work
groups and work sites show strengths against the Safety Five5. The data will also
identify specific behaviours under the Safety Five that need to be addressed most
urgently as well as the dispositions that will need to be addressed to ensure that
safety initiatives do reduce human error.

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At the micro level, feedback will be provided to individual work groups and their
managers and supervisors to help them understand the key behaviours they need to
address, and to enable them to develop, commit to, and track progress against.
As shown in the figure 5, the project will provide intelligence that will enable the
organisation to take a holistic and systemic approach to addressing risk tolerance
and safety by addressing how staff are recruited, and where they are assigned and
supervised, by building a clearer behavioural focus into training programmes, as
well as reviewing policies and procedures for potential gaps where key Safety Five
behaviours need greater emphasis. The data will also be used to develop and specify
behaviourally focused safety leadership programmes.

The mitigation against


safety risk begins with
the staffing of the
organisation.

Figure 5: A holistic approach to safety

Gather data
and evaluate
Safety culture /
climate survey

SHL Model

Am I encouraged
to be safe?

Am I likely
to act safely?

Action Plan

Staffing

Training

Leadership
Development

Policies and
Procedures

What is the DNA of safety?


At SHL, we see that the answer lies in behaviour and the disposition to risk tolerance.
From our more traditional vantage point of supporting organisations in their talent
management strategies and practices, we would suggest that the mitigation against
safety risk begins with the staffing of the organisation, and getting the people
element of the safety equation right from the outset. Many organisations have seen
the value of deploying the SHL behavioural questionnaire (Dependability and Safety
Instrument) in recruiting employees and ensuring that those employed in safety
critical roles have a good fit to the expectations for those roles.
Organisations that we have worked with have also found that using the behaviourally
focused model and tools that we have deployed to support safety also provide a
powerful and effective approach to developing existing employees, and for ensuring
that the investment made by organisations in safety and risk management pays off.
We started this paper by asking the question why the investment in training and
safety compliance is not enough to avoid major incidents and the ongoing cost
of accidents at work. Our answer is that safety can only be improved through a
systemic, holistic and behavioural approach.

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About the author


Eugene Burke is Chief Scientist at SHL Group Ltd. where his focus is on the
practical application of behavioural psychology and the science of assessment
to deliver solutions to organisations. He has held various leadership roles at
SHL ranging from R&D to product management as well P&L responsibility
for consultancy and professional services. He has consulted with private and
public sector organisations across a wide range of industries in Asia, Europe and
North America. He is a regular contributor to professional and public events,
has authored articles and book chapters on innovations in psychometric models,
assessment design, identifying high potential, meeting the global challenges to
talent management, identifying and managing the people risks in organisations,
and how to improve safety by adopting a behavioural approach. He has held
several positions on professional bodies including past Chair of the British
Psychological Societys (BPS) Steering Committee on Test Standards, past
Chair of the BPS Division of Occupational Psychology, past Council Member of
the International Test Commission, past Chair of the European Association of
Test Publishers, and is currently a member of the ISO Task Force for developing
standards for the use of assessment data, and a member of the Board of the
Association of Test Publishers.

Further information
More information on the Dependability and Safety Instrument (DSI) used can
be found via: http://www.shl.com/uk/solutions/products/docs/Fact_SheetDependability_and_Safety1.pdf
The technical manual for DSI can also be accessed and downloaded free of charge
from: http://central.shl.com/en-gb/TheLibrary/Pages/Library.aspx
Please visit our Thought leadership page page on which you will find articles,
manuals as well as access to the presentations that our scientists deliver at
professional events: http://www.shl.com/uk/resources/thought-leadership/

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References
1.

Examples include various studies cited by Aas, A. L. (2008) The


Human Factors Assessment and Classification System (HFACS)
for the oil & gas industry, International Petroleum Technology
Conference; Aas, A. L. (2009) Probing human error as a casual
factor in incidents with major accident potential. Third International
Conference on Digital Society; Wiegmann, D. A., and Shappell, S.
A. (2001). A human error analysis of commercial aviation accidents
using Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS).
DOT/FAA/AM-103, Office of Aviation Medicine, Federal Aviation
Administration. Washington DC; the John A. Volpe National
Transportation Systems Centre online piece on automobile driver
error retrieved on December 10th. via www.volpe.dot.gov/infosrc/
highlts/05/winter/focus.html

2.

Details of this initiative can be foundviahttp://stepchangeinsafety.net/


stepchange/

3.

Short behavioural questionnaire = SHL Dependability and Safety


Instrument (DSI). Please refer to further information section.

4.

The odds are worked out from the data shown in Figure 3. For all
employees, the odds of an accident were low at 95 : 5 or 19 : 1.
For the high behavioural risk group low on the Safety Five, the odds
were 80 : 20 or
4 : 1. 19 divided by 4 gives a result that is close to 5 and is why the
high behavioural risk group are seen as five times more likely to be
responsible for an accident.

5.

If you think back to the last case study set in the oil and gas industry,
Site C clearly had stronger sources of behavioural best practice that
could be drawn upon to provide tangible examples to the wider
workforce on effective approaches to safety.

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For more information


about this paper please
contact Eugene Burke,
eugene.burke@shl.com

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