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Dangerous behaviour

To be safe workplaces have to be properly managed. But new occupational health management systems, particularly those targeting worker behaviour, could be silencing the workforce and making the evidence and not the accidents in a hazardous workplace disappear.

Thirty years ago, managers lamented their "accident prone" workforce. The only fly in the safety manager's ointment was that research kept concluding it was the hazardous behaviour of management, not the workforce that was the cause of workplace accidents and ill-health. (1,2,3)

A generation later companies in Britain and throughout the industrialised world are still opting for off-the-shelf programmes which have behaviour modification as a core component. And these programmes stand accused fixing safety performance figures by placing pressure on workers not to report accidents for fear of disciplinary action or loss of wages, bonus or productivity payments.

Professors Theo Nichols and Eric Tucker (4) noted in September: "In the case of the British coal industry, there has been considerable disquiet that managers in the now privatised operation who have been influenced by OHS management system thinking have suppressed the reporting of accidents in certain pits in order to improve the look of their safety record."

At a Kent steel company "employees claim that their safety bonus system is used to pressure them to return to work prematurely after an accident or illness. This is alleged to be done by means of personnel staff contacting individuals at their homes and pointing out the loss of bonus to them and their work colleagues if they stay out for a length of time. Hints that absence may affect salary assessment at the end of the year all also claimed to be used by personnel." An HSE investigation backed union claims that accident figures had been massaged.

In August 1996, a headline in the NUM paper The Miner read: "RJB scraps bilateral talks as serious accidents increase". The article criticised RJB Mining, the largest of the privatised mine owners, for its new safety management system: "Pressure is put on miners not to report accidents, and to return to work before fully recovering from injuries, to avoid registering a three-day absence." In 1998r Hazards reported accident under-reporting was rife in the industry (Hazards 63).

Nichols and Tucker say they "share several particular concerns: about the tendency of OHS systems to ignore trade unions; about the tendency for firms which adopt such systems to focus on worker behaviour as the primary cause of accidents; about a tendency towards the suppression of injury reporting and the shortening of recuperative time, prompted by some of the reward structures that characterise such systems; and about the extent to which these systems have become actively promoted commercial products."

A new Health and Safety Executive backed report (5) has, however, switched the focus back to the behaviour of the worker. The research report investigates "individual differences in accident liability" and calls for "a more systematic and integrated approach to human failures and accident liability."

While the report admits accident proneness is not a major cause of accidents, it does say research "suggests there are two main personality types that are more likely to have accidents."

These are the "unstable extrovert" whose "sensation seeking, impulsive, aggressive" behaviour leads to accidents and the "unstable introvert" who makes unintentional errors because he or she is "anxious, distractible, rigid, neurotic".

This is strikingly similar to the conclusion of a discredited 1966 American Handbook of Psychiatry paper on "Industrial and occupational pyschiatry" (6). In guidance that also described "women employees" as an "occupational syndrome" caused by "physiological cycles" it advises the correct diagnosis of "accident syndrome" is "impulsive character, anxiety reaction."

Cathy Walker, health and safety director of the Canadian Auto Workers, says these arguments should be dead and buried (7). " Some workplaces are extremely hazardous and those are (usually) where people die at work. Others are less so and those are where people tend to avoid death and serious injury. It isn't their behaviour that determined their safety; it is the nature of the work."

The behaviour-based approach has its company critics. Patrick Ragan, director of corporate health, safety and environmental affairs for Rhone-Poulenc, North America wrote last year in the American Society of Safety Managers magazine, Professional Safety: " If the reward is based on fewer accidents reported, that is usually the result. Fewer accidents are reported - though no fewer accidents occur. This is especially true when the system calls for punishment if too many accidents are reported - the outcome is exactly the behaviour rewarded, which creates a system primed for increasingly severe accidents...

"Experience shows that hazards cannot be adequately controlled with good intentions and rigorous behavioural control."


1. Robert Sass and Richard Butler. The accident prone theory: A dead horse that won't lie down, Dept. of Labour, Saskatchewan. 1977.
2. Death at work. WEA Studies for trade unionists. Vol.1, number 50, June 1987.
3. Theo Nichols and Pete Armstrong. Safety or profit: Industrial accidents and the conventional wisdom. Falling Wall Press, England. 1973.
4. Theo Nichols and Eric Tucker. Occupational health and safety management systems in the United Kingdom and Ontario, Canada: A political economy perspective. Paper for the OHS management systems and workplace change. Amsterdam, 21-24 September 1998.
5. Individual differences in accident liability: A review. HSE. 1998. ISBN 07176 1575 8
6. American Handbook of Psychiatry, Basic Books, New York. 1966.
7. Cathy Walker. Bosses behaving badly. WHIN. July-December 1998
8. Patrick T. Ragan, Safety's silver bullet, Professional Safety, October 1997.




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Behaviour based safety programmes don't work

To be safe workplaces have to be properly managed. But new occupational health management systems, particularly those targeting worker behaviour, could be silencing the workforce and making the evidence and not the accidents in a hazardous workplace disappear.

Hazards 64, October-December 1998, page 16

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