top of page

You are the variable in the environment

‘Normal’ incidents that still plague our workplaces, such as slips and trips, falls from height, cut tendons, lacerations, strains and sprains, overturned plant, service/utility strikes and many more are often an unlucky result of a behaviour that has happened many times before.

Why should we assume that the behaviour may have happened many times before? Well, it’s a good place to start when using behavioural science to help understand incidents. Once we reach adulthood we have navigated thousands of, if not more, situations, environments and people. Over the years building up stock responses to stimulus and circumstances, developing many habits and routines.

It is simply likely that the at-risk behaviour has happened before. Prior to the incident, the behaviour gave the performer a different result. It gave them an outcome, an outcome that they wanted, an outcome that did not lead to the incident or injury. An outcome they probably believed the organisation wanted.

Moreover, it provided the performer with a reinforcement history, a feedback loop that confirmed the behaviour was the correct thing to do, as far as they were concerned. The at-risk behaviour, for that individual served a purpose.

As individuals we can perform an at-risk behaviour for the whole of our life and never suffer a negative consequence, learning continuously that this so called ‘unsafe’ behaviour delivers us a positive outcome.

However, an organisation that operates with an allowed number of at-risk behaviours for long enough will at some point convert those into incidents or injuries. It’s a simple numbers game.

It’s for this reason that someone in the organisation must view the whole. An individual’s experience does not provide reliable feedback on what is right or otherwise for their health, well being and safety for them and especially the organisation.

Company rules can seem controlling and, in some cases, pointless but they are there to reduce the collective risk to the company more than the individual risk to the worker. This is not actively discussed but perhaps should be and in doing so may help the individual understand their part in protecting the livelihood of the collective.

We can’t rely on the feedback an individual receives to judge whether a behaviour is right or not or at-risk or not. After all, who are we to judge what is good for the masses. Opinions change as do rules and standards and so we are informed of new rights and wrongs, acceptable and unacceptable behaviours as time marches on.

Don’t focus on the individual but do pay attention to what they do.

Throw enough people into an environment and you will soon get an idea of the behaviours that environment supports. Behaviours are not separate from the environment they occur in. They are intertwined, part of, connected to and reinforced by the physical, social and living parts of the place in which the behaviour occurs.

Sure, we all respond differently, that’s because we all have different reactions and responses to the environmental stimulus around us. But it’s still all tied to the environment.

We do not see the present environment in the same way as the person next to us. We see it through the lens of our past experiences, coupled with our current objective and skewed by whatever else may be going on in our minds, consciously or otherwise at that time.

So what to do?

There are signs and signals everywhere. We should listen and pay attention to the noise before it becomes too loud to ignore. Observe the data that is playing out in front of us, the performances of individuals on a stage, a stage built by the organisation.

Want a new behaviour? At some point you will have to disrupt and interfere with the feedback the performer is receiving. You have to re-write the experience. This is best done as close to the behaviour as possible and as often as possible.

Every behaviour observed that is not quite what was expected is an opportunity to provide feedback, new feedback that will help create a new feedback loop and adjust the behaviour. Every behaviour observed that reflects what is expected is an opportunity to add more reinforcement to further cement the relationship between stimulus, action and outcome.

Set this expectation to those you rely upon to supervise the works. Equip them with the knowledge and tools that they need to understand how humans work. Tell them to expect different behaviours from different people, different reactions to the environment.

Help them understand that they themselves are part of the environment, the part that can be varied and respond in different ways to the different individuals with different reinforcement history. Tell them that they have the power to make it more likely that desired, reduced risk behaviours happen more often.

But above all, don’t just tell people, actively practice being the variable component of the environment. Alter your behaviour depending on what you see in front of you.

Change the environment to make reduced-risk behaviours more likely by adjusting your behaviour.

bottom of page