Safety Culture Blog

Behavior is Neutral

Get this in your head; tattoo it on the back of your hand to remind you. Behavior is neutral. This simple mantra will set your safety program free of the dysfunctions that kill your safety culture.

Behavior is not right or wrong, good or bad. It just is.   Approach behaviors with the dispassionate, objective view of a scientist.

Chemists consider their basic elements as neutral. They only describe the elements on their basic observable traits and understand them best when they interact in certain controlled situations. Elements themselves are neutral, they just are.  A chemist doesn’t think of Hydrogen as good, bad, right or wrong.  For them, Hydrogen has 1 proton and no neutrons, has a standard atomic weight of 1.008, and is the most abundant element in the Universe.

When elements interact they have predictable outcomes.  It is the outcomes of these interactions that are not neutral.   When two Hydrogen atoms combine with a Carbon atom you have a Hydrocarbon, a molecule that naturally occurs here on earth, and things get more interesting.

The dispassionate and objective analyses of the interaction between Hydrogen and Carbon has led to some of the most amazing applications of our modern age.

Hydrocarbons in different petroleum configurations save lives, help machines fly, power industrial plants that make these medicines and flying machines along with lubricants, propellants, explosives, plastics… the list goes on.   Put in context, the neutral hydrocarbon can be very good and right for many applications.

Take good note, however, that this same neutral Hydrocarbon that can kill and destroy given another context.  Recent disasters involving Hydrocarbons have focused needed attention on Process Safety include refinery explosions  at the BP Texas City refinery, along with smaller refineries in Valero, Veolia, and Tesoro.   Likewise, Hydrocarbon spills in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and the Niger Delta kill and disrupt communities of fauna (including humans) and flora.  Our society is now debating the role of Hydrocarbons in climate change.  Put in context, the neutral hydrocarbon can be very bad and perhaps at-times wrong for our world.

Neutral elements with positive or negative outcomes because of the context they are put into.

I’ll take a risk

I’m going to take a risk to prove this point, one that may hurt my reputation with safety professionals. But I’m going to publish my scandalous confession in this article. I am admitting to you right now that the whole time I’ve been writing this article, I haven’t put on a hard hat! There, now you know, no hard hat ever touched my head the whole time.

Was I “wrong” to have forsaken a hard hat while writing? Would I have been “right” to do so? No. If I put on a hard hat as I sat down to write at my computer, it would not make me safer. It would just make me look ridiculous.  This is because behavior is neutral, not right or wrong. Thus, putting on a hard hat is not “right,” it is an action that must be defined by the situation you’re in.

The situation in which behavior occurs makes all the difference. It is the situation that determines the outcome of behavior. Therefore, it is the situation that defines behavior as “safe” or “at-risk.”

Can you think of a situation where putting on a hard hat will keep me safe? Certainly, you probably have a lot of areas in your work sites in which the simple behavior of putting on a hard hat would indeed keep me safe. That situation would define my behavior as “safe.”  As an added bonus you could tell me why my behavior would keep me safe (a central ingredient to change my behavior).

Consider your plant’s rules regarding hard hats. I’ll bet you define the situations and places in which hard hats must be worn.

I’ll prove my point further. This morning I bent at the waist… all the way to the floor! Was that “wrong”? You can easily think of a situation where bending at the waist will put me at-risk for injury -- perhaps if I was picking up a 40-pound load and twisting to put it on a truck bed. In this case it would be the situation that caused my behavior to put me at-risk. The behavior itself, bending at the waist, is neutral.

This morning I was not picking up loads. Instead, I was doing yoga (because I’m getting old and my body hurts if I don’t). I look pretty awkward as the yoga teacher told me to do a “forward fold,” better known as “bending at the waist.” I did the behavior this morning in the context of my morning yoga class.  Bending at the waist probably made me safer today because it loosened my back.

We could go on and on. Did you reach out and grab your coffee by the handle this morning. Is that wrong? Is there a situation where you can reach out the same way and stick your fingers in some active equipment where they can get crushed? Same behavior, different situations. It is the situation that defines the behavior as “safe” or “at-risk.”

Your processes, your procedures, your equipment and facilities, your policies, your supervision, your programs, your training, your meetings -- all of these are the very “situations” we are talking about that interact with behavior to produce good or bad outcomes. 

Here is the sobering yet empowering question: who is in control of the situation your workers are put into, the ones that lead to at-risk or safe behaviors? You are.  You can’t change a person, but it is empowering to know that you can change behaviors because you have control of the context they are put!  

This point is a critical change of mindset central to safety culture change. When you consider a behavior as neutral, we seek need to understand how the situation put the worker in the position to take that risk in the first place.  Through this we learn to design situations for workers that put them in the best position to engage in safe behaviors.

Do you notice the distinct way this is a different way of understanding behavior? Instead of assigning a label (“stupid,” “lazy”), blaming the worker, getting mad, or engaging in other dysfunctional practices that kill your safety culture, observe behavior as a neutral source of information that can lead you to an analysis providing solutions that change these behaviors for the better. 

When you go out to your site and see a worker behave in a way that puts them at risk back off the urge to get passionate and lash out at the worker.  Instead, step back and go “huh” that’s interesting.  Why is that behavior occurring right now?

Approach any incident with a clear understanding of the cause and effect relationships between the behaviors related to the risk, and the reasons why that person, either knowingly (on purpose) or unknowingly found themselves in a position to take that risk. 

(Feel free to read this sentence as much as you need so it sinks in real deep.)