Understanding observable and underlying behaviour to improve workplace safety

Written and published by the British Safety Council, India on 10 Nov 2020.

Safety observations form the crux of a behaviour-based safety programme. To ensure the success of the behaviour-based safety programme, it becomes critical for safety observations to be recorded accurately. You’ll also need the observations to be recorded frequently to gather enough data and make informed decisions. Put simply, behavioural safety depends on a high volume of high-quality behaviour observations.

However, a lot of errors occur in recording safety behaviours as observers generally tend to focus on the number rather than the quality of the observations. Similarly, they sometimes prepare an ineffective observation checklist to record safety observations, which ultimately results in the creation of a weak behavioural safety report. Thus, the first step in understanding both observable and underlying employee behaviour to improve safety behaviour is creating effective safety observation reports.

How to create effective safety observation reports?

A significant reason for why a large number of behavioural safety programmes fail is the difficulty encountered in analysing the behavioural data collected. This is generally caused due to the collection of dirty or incomplete data. Dirty data arises when your observation reports are too complicated or unorganised.

Therefore, a critical step in creating an effective safety observation report is to collect data in an organised checklist format. Here’s an example of how a behavioural safety observation checklist could look like:

Protective equipment checklist:




Not Applicable


Hard hat/Safety Shoes





Safety harness





Protective clothing










The second step is collecting complete data and adding comments for every observation, especially unsafe behaviour, if possible. The observations, too, need to be done frequently to have a large volume of data for analysis purposes.

Thus, having a large volume of high-quality data can help correctly analyse the observable behaviour, and the underlying behaviour and enterprises can take the necessary action to improve behavioural safety based on the analysis carried out. But, what exactly are observable behaviours and underlying behaviours that form the basis of safety behaviour observations?

What is observable behaviour?

Observable behaviour refers to the physical activities that employees perform at the workplace and can be directly recorded by the observer. The observable behaviour can be safe and unsafe, which needs to be determined by the safety observer.

Examples of observable behaviour include employees transporting items, moving loads physically, carrying out repairing and maintenance works, etc.

What is underlying behaviour?

Underlying behaviour is the root cause of observable behaviour. The underlying behaviour causes the employee to behave in a particular way, either in a safe or unsafe manner.

Examples of underlying behaviour include facility design, availability of safety equipment, work procedures, etc.

What is the relationship between observable behaviour and underlying behaviour?

Most safety observers usually focus on observable behaviour as they believe that employees are directly responsible for workplace safety, or the lack thereof. They typically hold employees accountable for unsafe behaviour, without understanding the cause that led them to behave in a certain way. However, what they fail to realise is that observable behaviour and underlying behaviour are intricately interlinked.

In most cases, the underlying behaviour determines the observable actions of the employees. For example, suppose an organisation faces multiple instances of workers sustaining injuries in a particular task, such as cleaning a water pipeline. In that case, safety observers might feel that the employees are exhibiting unsafe behaviour leading to the injuries. However, there might be an underlying cause, such as the shoes worn by the employees not providing them with a firm grip or them not being adequately trained or not trained at all regarding how to carry out the specific task. Thus, by analysing the underlying behaviour, we can find the root cause and make changes accordingly. For instance, employees can be provided with new, better-functioning gear, such as shoes, or they can be trained by an experienced professional who can help them carry out the task better.

How can workplace safety be improved with observable and underlying behaviour analysis?

In most cases of workplace accidents and injury, the fault doesn’t lie with the individual. Having a deep understanding of observable and underlying behaviour helps analyse why people do what they do, and how it led to the particular outcome.

This reasoning forms the basis of the ABC model of behaviour-based safety, which holds that Antecedents (underlying behaviour) lead to Behaviour (observable behaviour), which results in a Consequence. Once you identify and eliminate the root cause of unsafe behaviour (antecedents), it automatically helps improve observable behaviour, and eventually, workplace safety.

The observable behaviour is most often not the root cause of workplace hazards. No employee ever goes to work to get injured. Hence, we should look beyond the actions of the employees to improve behavioural safety. Having a behaviour-based safety programme that focuses on observable and underlying behaviour equally is the key to improving workplace safety.

To get the most out of a behaviour-based safety programme at the workplace, you can try implementing behaviour-based safety training for your employees to complement the safety programme and help improve workplace safety at a faster pace. You can consider implementing a behaviour-based safety training programme from a reputed organisation like the British Safety Council, which helps recognise unsafe behaviours and improve workplace safety. The training is provided by experts through immersive audio-visual lessons and includes practical sessions for skill-building exercises that can help reduce human behavioural errors at the workplace.