Safety managers often wonder why employees appear to ignore risks and choose to work unsafely. Such behavior is not uncommon. In fact, most people are apathetic to most risks most of the time (Sandman, 1992). In many cases, an individual's risky behavior occurs because they simply do not accurately perceive the risk associated with the situation. To understand when and why people fail to accurately perceive risk and how that lack of risk perception influences behavior, we can turn to the field of person-based psychology.
To understand person-based psychology, we first define 'safety culture' of which person-based psychology is one aspect. In general a safety culture, depicted in Exhibit 1, includes three domains: environment, person, and behavior (Geller, 1996).
Exhibit 1. A Safety Culture Requires Continual Attention to Three Domains (available in full paper).
Environment factors include equipment, tools, physical layout, engineering, and management systems such as standards, operating procedures, incident reporting, and training. Person factors include people's attitudes, beliefs, and personalities as well as knowledge, skills, and abilities. Finally, behavior factors include safe and at-risk work practices such as wearing personal protective equipment, safe lifting, coaching peers, and locking out power. These three domains are interactive and dynamic. Changes in one domain will impact the other two. The behavior and person domains represent the human dynamics of safety where the person states are the least understood and controllable part of a safety culture. Many organizations address the behavior domain (behaviorbased psychology) without understanding the importance of the person domain (person-based psychology). Both need to be addressed in order to achieve a Total Safety Culture.
In fact, the Activator-Behavior-Consequence Model clearly demonstrates how both factors are needed to understand human behavior (See Exhibit 2). Activators direct behaviors (such as a telephone ringing to signal someone to answer it), and consequences motivate behavior (someone chooses to answer or not answer the phone). So, individuals decide whether to follow the directive of an activator, and this choice is largely dependent upon the consequences expected after performing the behavior. Individuals have the freedom and power to choose not to respond to an activator condition or to decide on an action plan from a variety of alternatives (Geller, 2002). Numerous internal and situational factors influence how we perceive activators and consequences. In other words, there is space between environmental stimuli and people's responses. Working safely requires accurate perception of hazards, taking corrective action to remediate hazards, and performing other activities in the direction of safety.