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Behavioural safety - dramatic intentions

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The behavioural safety courses we deliver across the UK are a far cry from the first drama-based safety programme I designed and delivered over 20 years ago.


As I think back now, it’s clear that the difference isn’t just a result of the need to continually innovate the product, but a reflection of a fundamental change in the way businesses think about safety.

The first time I headed off to deliver behavioural safety training on an offshore platform, behavioural safety was still a relatively new approach. Its aim was to clearly take safety performance to the ‘next level’ but the drama component was still little more than a version of role play more usually associated with subjects like customer care. That said it had an impact and two years on from that first experience I was running behavioural safety courses all over the world.

Between then and now, drama has become an accepted part of the trainer’s toolkit and behavioural safety is a core element of many company’s safety management systems. But the programmes we deliver today are more than just the evolution of the genre, they reveal something more fundamental about attitudes towards safety.

Initially behavioural safety training focused on the behaviour of individuals and concentrated on ‘intervention conversations’ and promoting a ‘my brother’s keeper’ culture. For the most part, these interventions focused on ‘catching people doing something wrong’ and often reinforced the assumption that the solution to all on-site safety issues lay with the people doing the job.

However, it’s become clear that although conversations that raise awareness of personal safety issues have their place, if that’s all you do, you won’t necessarily create a sustainable safety culture. People don’t operate in a vacuum, so human dynamics need to be considered as well as process-safety and larger systemic issues. Behavioural safety training, likewise, has had to come of age and reflect this.

So, while we still get the same positive reaction to the use of drama, organisations, and to a degree the participants themselves, want to widen the debate. Now when we look at unsafe acts we go way beyond identifying a lack of awareness. We have to understand all the environmental activators at play; the role of organisational hierarchy and prevalent management culture; how group dynamics and pressures of conformity affect the individual; commercial pressures especially in workforces with complex supply chain arrangements alongside a much more nuanced appreciation of human motivation that recognises general societal shifts and cultural variances.

Expectations of the ‘safety conversation’ have changed accordingly. It’s no longer enough to do ‘polite telling’, these conversations need to be two-way, collaborative and as useful for getting information as they are for giving it. This isn’t just a response to the need for improved ‘employee engagement’, it reflects the thinking expressed by Professor Andrew Hopkins in Failure to Learn, which explored the BP Texas City refinery disaster. In short, Hopkins highlighted that, when it comes to safety management systems, you focus on personal safety to the detriment of plant and process safety at your peril, literally.

Increasingly, organisations recognise that one of the best ways to ensure plant, equipment, policies and procedures are fit-for-purpose is to get feedback from the people who see them up-close-and-personal on a day to day basis. You don’t get that quality of feedback from ‘polite telling’ safety conversations.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that I started to sense the limitations of the forum drama techniques used on early programmes. After all, forum drama holds a mirror to the delegates and reflects the work issues they face. While the technique is more than just a powerful engagement and awareness raising tool, it is constrained by the group’s sense of what they can and should do or say. This is largely because forum drama techniques are more geared towards shining a light on what not to do rather than giving clear alternatives to aim for and, more importantly, the skills, tools and techniques to get there.

Drama still makes safety interesting and memorable but it’s only when we understand why people do what they do and our managers and supervisors have the right skills, mindset and toolkit, that they can provide the support, guidance and control needed to produce effective safety behaviours.

The philosophy is increasingly ‘an organisation gets the safety behaviours its safety management system deserves’. So, if you’re not getting the behaviours you want, then it’s the organisation that needs to do something different, and that is a long distance travelled.

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