Vocational Careers | The psychology of Safety
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The psychology of Safety



When considering the psychology of safety a broader perspective is needed, including insight regarding more subjective concepts like attitude, value, and thought processes.


There are numerous opinions and recommendations on how the psychology of safety can be used to produce beneficial changes in people and organizations. Most can be classified into one of two basic approaches: person-based and behavior-based. In fact, most of the numerous psychotherapies available to treat developmental disabilities and psychological disorders, from neurosis to psychosis, can be classified as essentially person-based or behavior-based.

That is, most psychotherapies focus on changing people either from the inside (“thinking people into acting differently”) or from the outside (“acting people into thinking differently”). Person-based approaches attack individual attitudes or thinking processes directly. They teach clients new thinking strategies or give them insight into the origin of their abnormal or unhealthy thoughts, attitudes, or feelings. In contrast, behavior-based approaches attack the clients’ behaviors directly. They change relationships between behaviors and their consequences.


When people act in certain ways, they usually adjust their mental attitude and self-talk to parallel their actions (Festinger, 1957); when people change their attitudes, values, or thinking strategies, certain behaviors change as a result (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975). Thus, person-based and behavior-based approaches to changing people can influence both attitudes and behaviors, either directly or indirectly. Most parents, teachers, first-line supervisors, and safety managers use both approaches in their attempts to change a person’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, or behaviors.

  • When we lecture, counsel, or educate others in a one-on-one or group situation, we are essentially using a person-based approach.
  • When we recognize, correct, or discipline others for what they have done, we are operating from a behavior-based perspective.


In his book The Psychology of Safety, Dr. E. Scott Geller, writes that the most successful approaches to occupational safety directly address the human aspects of safety. He describes, albeit somewhat optimistically, a “Total Safety Culture,” in which:


  • Everyone feels responsible about safety and does something about it on a daily basis;
  • People go beyond the call of duty to identify unsafe conditions and at risk behaviors, and they intervene to correct them;
  • Safe work practices are supported with rewarding feedback;
  • People “actively care” for the safety of themselves and others;
  • Safety is not considered a priority that can be shifted depending on the demands of the situation.


Obviously, this is much easier said than done. According to Geller, it requires “continual attention to three domains.” First, attention must be directed to a variety of environmental factors: equipment, tools, and physical layout of the job, procedures, and standards. This is one of the most common approaches to worksite safety matters. Second, person factors must be addressed. These include attitudes, beliefs, and personalities. As clinicians, we know only too well how important these factors are in enabling patients to recover. Third, Geller notes that behavioral factors must be included in any safety program. These behavioral factors include safe and at-risk work practices, but Geller continually stresses the practice of having employees and supervisors go out of their way to intervene on behalf of another’s safety.


Geller refers to a series of paradigm shifts for total safety. He describes the traditional methods of safety management; 1) engineering (designing the safest work place); education (teaching workers how to safely exist in their work environment); and enforcement (using discipline to enforce compliance). He states that these traditional three “E’s” have only gotten us so far and, to take safety and injury prevention to the next level, three additional “E’s” must be added; empowerment, ergonomics, and evaluation.


Perhaps most important is empowerment. In the past, some supervisors have interpreted “enforcement” to mean a strict disciplinary approach to enforcing safe work practices. The resulting adversarial relationship between workers and supervisors has been counterproductive and the ill will created has turned off many workers. These individuals may do what is required, but no more. Others may actually try to beat the safety systems and even sabotage the regulatory practices. Rather than enforcing safe work practices through a strict punishment approach, Geller recommends encouraging safe work practices and rewarding those for protecting themselves and others. Such a positive approach has a great deal of merit.


Geller states: “Safety should be more than the behaviors of ‘using personal equipment,’ more than ‘locking out power’ and checking equipment for potential hazards,’ and more than ‘practicing good housekeeping.’ Safety should be an unwritten rule, a social norm that workers follow regardless of the situation. It should become a value that is never questioned — never compromised.”


Learning Objectives


At the end of this session, participants will be able to: (not limited to)

  • Describe the characteristics of the psychology of safety
  • Identify the elements of a ‘Total Safety Culture’
  • Describe the three traditional methods of safety management

Discuss the two approaches that can be used to change peoples behaviour