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First Person: Implementing Employee Safety Measures

Dr. Judy Agnew has more than 19 years of consulting experience and a Ph.D. in Applied Behavior Analysis. She is recognized as a thought leader in the field of behavioral safety and performance management and is the author of Safe by Accident (with Aubrey Daniels) and Removing Obstacles to Safety (with Gail Snyder). Dr. Agnew partners with clients at Aubrey Daniels to create behavior-based interventions for maintaining safe work environments. In this issue, she shares her expertise with Area Development.

November 2010
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Then how can managers make sound decisions in adverse conditions?
Agnew: Fluency is the key. Fluency is the ability to make decisions quickly and without hesitation. For example, pilots have many checklists and procedures they have to follow. Pilots are fluent not because they have remembered every item on every checklist, but because they know which safety checklists to pull out when a situation occurs. We cannot practice safety by reading a book or sitting through a lecture. If we wait for an actual incident to happen, it is difficult to practice fluency. We cannot be fluent without built-in practice.

What are the most obvious signs that management is gambling with safety?
Agnew: Among these are organizations that focus on lagging indicators such as incident rates. The trap is that after one year of few or no incidents, organizations believe they have safety under control when it may be that they have just been lucky. In today's companies the unsafe conditions and at-risk behaviors that still exist only occasionally result in accidents. That means they can go for periods of time with no accidents just through luck. Unless safe and at-risk behavior is measured, an organization may be relying on luck. We call this "safe by accident."

In your book, you discuss Behavior-Based Safety (BBS). Can you explain that term?
Agnew: BBS is about identifying behaviors needed to stay safe and creating systems to encourage people to do those behaviors consistently. With BBS, we are looking at why people are not following safety procedures (e.g., not wearing hearing protection), understanding the reasons for unsafe behavior, and creating better strategies to correct it. Is hearing protection not worn because it is uncomfortable? Is it time-consuming to adhere to safety procedures?

Most companies conduct a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). Explain what that constitutes.
Agnew: A JHA consists of stopping before you do a job and identifying hazards of the task. This is especially important for infrequent tasks. A JHA is designed to make people think about what needs to be done to keep safe on the job; it is not designed to find fault. JHAs do not have to be lengthy unless the job is big. You can conduct a mini-JHA by answering a few questions before starting a job.

Can you describe a safety leadership strategy that does not work?
Agnew: One strategy that does not work is the implementation of injury-based incentive programs that reward employees for going a period of time without accidents. There are three ways to earn such incentives: (1) employees behave safely and do what they are supposed to do; (2) they engage in at-risk behavior but are lucky and do not have accidents; or (3) they do not report accidents. It is better to focus on reinforcing safe behavior to reduce accidents.

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