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Developing a safety – first culture. Beyond knowledge to behaviours.

Changing safety culture

At 3t Transform, it’s common to see situations in which executives tasked with achieving compliance with safety standards are scratching their heads. Despite significant investment in compliance and process-oriented training focused on imparting the necessary knowledge, actual behaviours often don’t change accordingly.  

When it comes to behaviour, there is a vast range of factors at play. These can range from having a disagreement at home and arriving at work in a bad mood, not feeling accepted by one’s team, poor communication from the team leader and many more. Then there’s the fact that we all have different personalities, likes, dislikes and motivations. As an added complexity, different cultures may have different perspectives on safety. While a diverse workforce has obvious benefits for inclusiveness, innovation and inspiration, an elective approach to safety feels inappropriate. The challenge is to get everyone thinking about and approaching safety in the same way. 

The big question is – can training achieve this? My answer is no – or, at best, partly. Well-structured and designed safety and compliance training can achieve some behaviour change. The desired behaviour changes though need to take place over a long period of time, so some reinforcement is required. Let’s look firstly at what the most appropriate learning design might include if our objective is to maximise behaviour change: 

  • Immersive or experiential learning is key. Placing the learner in a realistic environment where they can simulate various safety scenarios works well. We’ve developed digital twins, virtual reality competence, and compliance scenarios for global brands, and they have been delighted with the results. 

Feedback tells us that:  

  • Realism makes learning more engaging.
  • Working with real equipment in VR cuts through the cultural barriers that training relying on language hits. 
  • The ability to see and experience the consequence of not following a standard safety procedure makes the learning much more impactful (rather than reading about what the consequence might be). 
  • The ability to repeat actions in a safe and cost-effective way, means that the training can start to develop some muscle memory in learners. As habits are a big part of behaviour, this is important. 
  • The learning should not be a one-off. Anyone hoping to achieve safe behaviours and trying to do so with a one-off course will be disappointed with the results. There needs to be regular reinforcement – preferably using different tools. These can include micro-learning and nudges and preferably some self-assessment. Effective self-assessment can be beneficial to force the learner to reflect on their behaviour and tendencies.

Practical safety training needs to exist in a larger context that supports and reinforces the desired behaviours. This context is created and influenced by leadership behaviour and attention, incentives, deemed priorities, random events, colleagues etc. The challenge is no different from any change management situation. Are leaders paying attention to safety, and how do employees at all levels know that? Are the existing incentives aligned with the desired behaviour, and is this clear to everyone? Is there a clear organisational culture that reinforces the right behaviours?  

Having the right leadership, culture and learning in place will mean you’re likely to be ahead of your competitors or benchmark organisations in your sector. Perhaps the next step is introducing an employee-driven approach to safety. Much of the above is typically seen as management’s responsibility. Is there room for employees to have a far greater say in training, culture, appropriate incentives and the like? My view is that by being open to this approach, there is likely to be significant buy-in and commitment which are among the bigger challenges in the conventional approach.