A Behavioral Psychologist on How to Create a Workplace Mindset That Promotes Safety

February 22, 2022 | Blog
behavioral psychology & workplace safety
  • The most effective safety programs are built on a deep understanding of behavior. When you understand what motivates people to act in a certain way, you can take steps to persuade them to choose positive actions over dangerous alternatives.
  • In an episode of the No Accident podcast, behavioral psychologist Timothy Ludwig, who specializes in the psychology of workplace safety, explains the foundational instrument of a strong safety culture: communication.
  • The impulse among many executives looking at safety is to target an injury rate of zero. This can lead to underreporting. Focus on other metrics that keep employees safe and are easy to identify as safety wins.
Safety must be more than a list of rules. It should be a mindset that drives everyone in your organization.

When people understand not only what they have to do but why they have to do it, they’re more likely to get on board.

Behavioral psychologist Timothy Ludwig, PhD, helps companies get under their employees’ hard hats, and build safety programs that connect with the way they think. He’s a psychology professor at Appalachian State University, North Carolina, and a consultant who has worked on developing and improving safety programs with organizations including Marathon Petroleum, NASA, and the US Navy.

Dr. Ludwig takes a hands-on approach to safety. He’s happier walking the factory floor in protective goggles than sitting behind a desk. His number one piece of advice is to observe workers while they do their jobs — with consent and without comment — and ask for their input. Walking in their shoes helps him get inside their heads.

Based on an episode of the No Accident podcast with Dr. Ludwig, here’s why injury rate isn’t necessarily the most important metric, how to talk your way into a strong safety culture, and the factor most safety professionals overlook when it comes to accidents.


Talking Is the Starting Point of Safety Culture

Having observed many examples of safety cultures, Dr. Ludwig argues that strong ones are always based on clear and open communication. People must be able to speak up when they notice an issue or need to report an incident.

This is true throughout your organization:

  • Frontline workers must be able to talk to each other about safety procedures and why they’re important. This promotes safe practices on the job.
  • A supervisor who asks frontline workers what PPE they need, or how they’re feeling about existing safety protocols, reminds them that management is there to protect them.
  • A leader who asks how a budget change will impact safety proves that safety is a concern for everyone, including executives.

Giving everyone a say in safety makes them feel invested and involved, which means they’re more likely to follow the rules. It also ensures that the safety team has access to different levels of expertise, including crucial hands-on experience from the frontline workers.


Don’t Overlook the Role of Environment

Many safety supervisors make the mistake of automatically assuming that human error or negligence is at fault for every accident.

It comes from a well-meaning but flawed place: They’re just trying to get to the bottom of what happened as fast as possible. However, in rushing to this conclusion, they’re overlooking the importance of environment as an influence on human behavior.

If you’re confident that your employee is capable of doing a job and has received the appropriate training, it’s unlikely that they woke up one morning unable to do it safely. More likely, something happened before or during work that pushed them to make a mistake.

For example, Dr. Ludwig says, a supervisor talks for longer than usual, so the factory workers have to rush to their machines. One person skips over a routine maintenance check so they can get to work faster — and that oversight causes an accident.

Many safety professionals would focus on the person’s failure to perform all their checks: but in doing so, they miss the lesson about workers feeling so rushed that they jeopardize their own safety.

As Dr. Ludwig points out, when you focus exclusively on the person as the cause, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to investigate other factors that drove their behavior. Environment can heavily impact people’s decisions, for good or bad. For example, if safety equipment isn’t easy to access and close to where a person will be performing their job, there’s a higher chance that they’ll decide not to bother getting it.

Training people is just one part of the safety equation. You also have to make sure their environment is designed to promote positive behavior and dissuade poor practices.


Count Metrics Beyond Injury Rate

At first glance, hitting an injury rate of zero seems like the most significant safety metric a company could achieve. Preventing employees from being injured on the job is the main goal of the safety department, after all.

In reality, however, when you’re dealing with high-risk work environments and large numbers of employees, it’s almost impossible to get the injury rate down to zero. That doesn’t mean the safety program isn’t working: Just that there are other key performance indicators (KPIs) that tell a more nuanced story.

Unfortunately, when executives notice that injury rates are above zero, they tend to lose faith in the safety department. This can make it difficult to justify a suitable slice of the budget, and to get the leadership buy-in that is so important for promoting a company-wide safety culture. It also doesn’t help that driving for zero is a tricky sell to leadership, who are used to aiming for high figures!

Designating injury rate as the key metric can also lead to underreporting. Employees at every level of the organization don’t want to be lectured about an unavoidable accident, or lose their performance-based bonuses, so they just don’t report them when they happen. This creates a false sense of security, and makes it harder for the safety team to advocate for increased budget allowances or new protocols. If the injury rate is already so low, the executives argue, why waste money on new equipment or training?

To avoid these issues, Dr. Ludwig recommends choosing metrics that correlate positively with a low injury rate. As the injury rate goes down, the rates of these metrics climb.

For example:

  • Inspections
  • Behavioral observations
  • Safety meetings and discussions
  • Safety decisions made by leaders
  • Workforce participation in safety procedures

Safety is in your hands — but it’s also in your head.

This article is based on an episode of the No Accident podcast.

Share this article

Like what you read? Check out the latest posts.