Behavioural safety vs safety culture

Explaining the world of health and safety can be hard, with terminology being thrown around and used interchangeably without any clear offering on what’s right for your workplace.


Behavioural safety and safety culture are the perfect examples of this! In this post, we shine some light on the key differences to help see what approach is right for your workplace safety vision.


Exploring behavioural safety


At a glance, behaviours are observable, can be corrected after they’ve happened, and there is generally a focus on coaching an employee to consider the consequences of their actions and to commit to safer future choices. But what do these programmes look like in practice?

  • Employees not punished for mistakes or lapses
  • Employees instead educated to understand personal responsibility
  • Good safety behaviours rewarded to promote compliance
  • Safety communications and management styles feature heavily in focus

While pioneering a new way of thinking about safety, the behaviours that can be observed are the end product of a lot of other influences. What a person believes will have a huge subconscious impact on the way they think, feel, and ultimately behave – this is where safety culture steps in.


Safety culture


Safety culture exists permanently in the beliefs of all its members and as such, can be identified and proactively changed before something happens. Cultures are created and maintained in the assumptions, perceptions, stories, and routines that make up the unofficial but known norms of a group.


Behavioural vs culture in practice


Leadership: “Anyone can stop a job if they see something dangerous happening.”


Workforce: “Yeah right, the last time Ellis did that, the supervisor made it clear they weren’t happy about it because it put them behind schedule – no thanks!"


Every encounter can strengthen existing beliefs. A manager may believe that telling an employee about policy will automatically make them do it, but there is a gap – the employee believes in reality they don’t want it done so makes it difficult. The gap between policy and practice becomes evident, especially when factors such as budgets and schedules get thrown in.


Unfortunately, reiterating to your employees over and over again that they can stop a job will not change the experiences that stop them from doing just that. This is why a behavioural safety programme isn’t enough on its own.


Our example shows a ‘them and us’ culture, where the intentions of management and policy are disparate from the impact on your employees. Addressing behaviours without understanding the culture that drives them is a band-aid approach that can’t address the root cause, and prevent accidents and incidents.


Bridging the gap between behaviour and culture


From improving communication, to valuing all voices, to rewarding positive behaviour, there are many strategies you can utilise to build an environment of safety first in practice, not just policy. This is where gaining an understanding of the cultural drivers that influence behaviours can take the guesswork out of managing them.


Changing cultures happens slowly, but it is the most sustainable way to drive an instinctive, positive behavioural shift in the long term.