Topic letter 29

Safe behavior originates from a sense of unsafety

We create safety by systematically eliminating risks. This technical approach works well until human behavior comes into play. Then we have to face up to a new set of rules. That is the subject of this blog.

Work permit

Before we present someone with an assignment, we often create a so-called work permit. During that creative process of making the permit we analyze the task and detect all potential hazards. We then describe how the work can be carried out in the safest way and we formulate an assignment in which security measures are included.

The ideal preparation

You cannot improve on this preparation process, at least that’s how it seems. All known facts are taken into account, the lessons of the past are integrated and the performer only needs to follow the plan. Thus, risks are limited to an absolute minimum. The only concerns being that the performer sticks rigidly to the described way of working and that nothing unforeseen happens.

Separation of duties

We must realize that the very process of the work permit system leads to a schism between preparation and execution. By analyzing everything in detail whilst preparing a task, the performer’s initiation into the risks of the implementation is minimal. What we overlook is that this schism has consequences for the performer.

Danger system

We have all inherited a danger system that has safely guided our ancestors through the evolution. This unconscious system has a start engine called risk detection. If the performer himself does not experience the risks, the danger system doesn’t receive any impulses to activate. It remains in a sleeping mode. If something unexpected happens during the execution of a task, the performer is unprepared and therefore often too late in reacting. This is one of the major causes of incidents.

Technique versus the human factor

What we see here is a clash between two worlds, each with its own laws. During preparation, we use a technical perspective and utilize our ratio and logical thinking. That way of working provides us with a lot of control. However, during implementation we are dealing with human behavior and this behavior stems mostly from unconscious processes over which our ratio and consciousness exert hardly any control.

Inhibited by its success

Ideally we want to reuse the success yielding formula of the technical approach to bring the behavior of the performer into line. Behavior, however, is hard to fold into a rational structure and even weakens it. The result is that we are constantly confronted with a residual group of accidents, even though we prepare work thoroughly. Our only solution is to qualify these accidents as "Human Factor Errors", thereby blaming others, not ourselves.

Is there an alternative approach?

A good sound technical preparation is beyond reproach but we have to reconsider our approach to implementation of the human factor. What we need to do is to involve the performer earlier in the preparation process. We have to present him with the opportunity to detect for himself the dangers inherent in a task so that he can best find ways of handling them. We have to rely on the fact that as soon as a person achieves a better understanding of the risks involved, he will automatically activate his own safety behavior.

The punch line

Nobody wants to be injured in the workplace. That's why we naturally work more safely when we realize that a task contains unsafe aspects. This realization cannot occur by simply reading a warning on a work permit when we know nothing of the background. That warning has the same effect as when our mother says for the hundredth time "drive carefully". An awareness of risks will arise only if we visualize what we are going to do and in particular which dangers are involved whilst doing it. These images evoke a chain of safe behavior and keep us on our toes. In this way we give ourselves a license to work safely.

Juni Daalmans

September 2013

Brain Based Safety


More information on brain based safety can be found on and in the book "Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations. Best Practice Safety Management in the Chemical and Process Industries." 2012 Elsevier

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