Improving safety performance through sports science

I was at my daughters first rowing team meeting at high school tonight. She was really excited about what lay ahead this year and the challenges she will face with being part of the rowing team. I must say, based on the aspiration and success of the team that has gone before, as a parent, my advice is to get your daughter into rowing! The discipline, motivation and how to overcome hard work, really stood out.

But I digress. What’s this got to do with improving safety? Well this team of year 8 girls, nearly 50 in total, had a team of 10 coaches! 1 coach per 5 girls or one per quad team and a single skull. Great to see my money being used on the kids.

They introduced each coach one by one. A mixture of semi-professionals and old girls from the school. As I said, all very impressive people. But what came next really surprised but also made me reflect. They introduced the performance coach! yes a performance coach. Their key guy who collects and analyses the data, feeds back the observations and develops individual programs for each rower to optimise performance and maximise chance of success. Wow. We need one of those at work!

That made me think. Hell yeah, we do need a performance coach at work. One who can collect and analyse individual safety performance, feed it back and develop an individual program. Hmmmm…..why don’t we have one of those and what would that look like if we did?

What information would we collect to improve safety performance. We see it in elite sports where it seems they are measuring every little thing. Looking for tiny improvements which give competitive advantage. Team players wear tracking and monitoring devices whilst on the field of play. They are analysed by the second. Often a time sync’d video is watched by the entire team, so you (and your team mates) can see your mistakes in full HD, frame by frame. This is a time tested approach and critical to improvement. Analysis, review and feedback. The breakfast of champions.

But what are we doing in safety, to improve performance? What are we measuring in terms of how we can be safer? Do we even know what to measure? Then reviewing and feedback in the workplace. Is this even possible? I can see a work force deeply suspicious of any video being taken, let alone playing it back for all to share lessons learned!

I feel we are a long way from this. We still haven’t progressed from safety is a compliance issue and any review of performance, especially if it is failure is normally met with penalty. Little wonder workforces are suspicious.

So the question in my head is how would we design a safety performance improvement plan based on the sports science/performance methods? Who would that performance coach be and what would be measured? My high school teenage daughter has one for rowing. Why don’t we?

Safety leaders must have courage

I was reminded today of the importance of courage and safety leadership. I facilitated a lessons learned and asked the team “What did you learn from the past 3 months and what can you do to improve safety?”

The team provided excellent feedback. As we summarised, engaging with others surfaced. Getting into the field. Visible leadership presence. Building effective relationships. Better use of the data. Communication, recognition more BBQ’s. Nothing there.

Then I came across a comment which struck me. “Shrugging off the reluctance to intervene on a safety issue”. I thought Wow. Who was this. As I looked around the room, I didn’t see many “shrinking” violets. I glanced at the form again and recognise the writing instantly. I had no idea this person felt this way. Only yesterday, he lead an intervention with a group of big tough civil contractors. The main protaganist tattooed from head to toe! For him that must have taken some courage.

Thats when the memory came back. An old HR mentor of mine Marco Serra once said to me “Popey, courage is not acting without fear, courage it is acting in-spite of fear”. Not sure where he got it from but it was resonated with me ever since.

Every aspect of safety leadership puts you out there. From engaging and intervening with people you don’t know who may be doing something unsafe or trying new initiatives which may fail because the old ones don’t work. All of these activities can create some element of fear in us.

Fear is such a crippling emotion. It is our brains way of keeping us safe (fight, flight or freeze). Warning us about hazards. But our brain is not very good at discriminating hazards these days, creating strong fear emotions about things which aren’t hazards. Public speaking being just one example of how fear can turning highly intelligent people into babbling wrecks. Public speaking is hardly a sabre tooth tiger!

Safety leaders will be out there, getting after it. They will be engaging with others, building effective relationships. Creating a safety culture. Taking it from where it is to where it should be. Inevitably situations for intervention will occur where feedback on existing practices needs to be highlighted and the new, modelled. They will be influencing others in this culture change. Driving change puts you, by definition, out of the comfort zone (either yours or some else). Into a place where the fear emotion lives. Facing the fear is what leaders do. Courage is what gives you the strength to face that fear. If you want to be a safety leader, face those fears. Exercise and strengthen these courage muscles.


Safety Leadership – Taking action

Safety leaders take action. They listen for or observe opportunities to do get it done. Their thinking goes automatically to how can I make this happen with my efforts or those of my team. Thinking and discussion is important but taking action is critical. Good thoughts without actions are only good thoughts. Be a safety leader. Take action.

Seth Godin – What do you want to do?

I am always reading a book, watching a ted talk, reviewing blogs or videos from influencers I follow, to increase my learning time. This weekend I started an online course (Udemy) with Seth Godin about freelance consultants a friend of mine recommended. One of the activities in the course is to go through a bunch of questions and publicly declare your answers. I thought my blog would be the perfect place.

So here goes:

I want to create a body of knowledge and actions to help people understand why we do what we do to be safe. I want to tap into what humans have learned about our decision processes and use this to keep people safer.

I want to change the way organisations look at safety. From the very top CEO, COO and entire boards, with their flawed models of why people get hurt, to the frontline worker that somehow seem to think it can happen to them. I am going to do that through two streams. Building safety leadership and developing safe habits.

I am willing to risk it all on this as I see the value leadership and effective habit building can bring to organisations and individuals.

I have already allocated a huge amount of my time and attention into learning and bringing together the knowledge that tells us why we do what we do. I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface. I am writing this at 430am and will continue to do that until the job is done. I do need to think about tradeoffs and at this stage, as an hourly rate guy, time is money so to do more I need to stop doing paid work and use that time to invest into future programs.

My very first blog shares my vision of a safety revolution. I honestly believe by understanding why we do what we do will revolutionise the safety industry. So does this project matter though for the risk and effort I’m putting in. Shit yeah!

Finally, is it possible? I take strength from Tony Robbins. He has done this day in day out for the past 30 years in everything from sports stars, celebrities, suicidal folks and normal people like you and me. His laboratory has been some 3 million people. He has worked with them to help them understand why they do what they do and succeeded. Kerry Spackman has codified the science behind this and has helped the elite of elite athletes to be successful. I know I can do this and improve the safety outcomes of organisations across the globe.









Hierarchy of control and behavioural safety – how do these approaches fit?

A friend of mine asked me a question. How does behavioural safety fit with hierarchy of control? Hmmmm…..great question.

It took me some time to engage system 2 and think through this. My first thoughts were:

Hierarchy of control is primary focused on identification of the hazard and some form of interaction with that hazard. Notionally, there are five controls that are applied. They are:

  1. Elimination – removal of the hazard
  2. Substitution, – reducing the hazardous energy
  3. Engineering – designing a means to isolate the hazard from the person (e.g. guards)
  4. Administration – Creating procedures that put as much distance between the hazard and the person
  5. Personal Protective equipment – often referred to as the last line of defence, it involves placing some form of protective material on the person

So, the hierarchy of controls look at the hazard side of the equation.

Behavioural safety on the other hand looks at the person side of the equation. It doesn’t matter if it is a peer to peer program (involving observation and feedback from others) or a safe habits program (self understanding triggers routines and rewards). The focus is on target behaviours or safe routines. These human actions are independent of type of hazards. What is important is that the hazard exists and there is some human action that can avoid the line of fire at is most basic.

On the face of it they seem mutually exclusive. I’ve seen programs focused on the hazards only and programs focused on the behaviours only. Rarely are they integrated but in reality they are the sum of the whole. Without one or the other, the equation is incomplete therefore so is the program. Spending equal effort on hazards and behaviours balances the equation. This balance is very important.

So thanks good friend. I hope this helps.



Safety Leadership – Professional Safety Mastery

This is the third element of the Safety Leadership Framework. It focuses on a clear depth of expertise and experience supported by clear accountability. Continuous learning and innovation is a pillar of this element as well as a robust sense of reality in the operating environment.

The safety leader needs to be able to respond to changing conditions with a sound understanding of the current tools, techniques and processes but also be looking for what is working and more importantly what is not. A keen interest and curiosity about what yours and other teams are doing is important.

Self awareness and personal development play a large role in this element. Getting from where you are to an effective safety leader can be a short or long journey. Understanding the learning methods that work best for you is also necessary. Reflect on when you learned something new and what were your motivations? Safety leaders take this stuff on because they see a future state and want to drive to make it a reality.

A safety leader can also recognise when they don’t have the technical expertise or capabilities necessary and seeks out and identifies those that do. Acknowledging your strengths and weakness is critical and filling the gaps with others is positive attribute. Be sure though you actually have filled the gap with real expertise and experience.

Building effective safety networks is another key pillar to Mastery as you can’t always do it by yourself. Consider the networks and contacts you have. Are you connected with any professional or industry associations? Seek them out using the internet. Linkedn also has groups that you may find valuable.

So developing professional safety mastery is up to you. Either you can dive in and develop yourself through a learning program or surround yourself with great people. Both will require building effective networks and seeking out best practice which may not come from where you expect it. Always be on the look out for that breakthrough performance.

Safety Leadership – How to be a safety champion

Element number 2 of the Safety Leadership Framework is Champion Safety Focus. This element is about having a close understanding of yours and your workmates safety needs, organisational aspirations and keeping them front of mind.

It begins with your efforts keeping safety on everyones radar through discussion at as many engagement opportunities (meetings, safety toolboxes, email signatures, lunch time learning experiences, etc) as you can. It can then move to one on one engagements with your leaders.

This means engaging in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way and not a toxic spray at the boss because he hasn’t approved one of your pet safety peeves! Remember, being a safety champion is about bringing and keeping safety front of mind, which provides the platform for engagement and discussion. Not beating up the bosses. No-one wins there!

A simple way to start, is to ask for a safety share or safety moment at the beginning of any of the meetings you attend. Be prepared with one of your own safety shares as most people are reluctant to speak up. A key attribute of a good safety moment is that is it relevant and meaningful to the group. This tends to imply discussing situations from your workplace which are commonly known. Linking the safety moment with your organisations aspirations gives the story relevance and importantly demonstrates to all, that you are championing safety.

To be effective here, make sure you have at least 5-8 safety moments ready to go and keep driving the discussion until others get involved. You want to lead but don’t try to own it. Help others to drive when they become comfortable to do so. Your goal here is to help others engage and to drive the discussions.

So, to Champion Safety Focus means to keep safety front of mind for you, your work group and leadership. Engaging positively and helping others is your role. Start small and work up!

Last word: Championing a cause can by hard and you will be challenged. Maintain the focus and push the cause because they will come around.


For real leadership motivation take a look at one of my most earliest exposures to TED Talks.

To get you start on a couple of safety moments if you are stuck, take a look at this site …..


Human decisions – what behavioural economics can teach safety people

Many think that we humans do a tremendous job at making choices. Economic traditionalist claim we think like Einstein, store information like your computer and have the will power of the Dalai Lama. Supporting a notion that we choose unfailingly well. Unfortunately that isn’t anyone I know.

Instead, real people can’t do simple math without a calculator, forget where they put their car keys and eat unhealthy food too many times! A big difference between the traditional thinking about the choices we make and reality.

The safety world is no different. We seem to think that people assess risks rationally and logically. We often expect predictability in our risk-related behaviour. This is not what I have seen in the many investigations I have been involved in. Actually the contrary is true. Almost a predictable irrationality!

This is where the latest research and the many studies from the field of Behavioural Economics can show for us safety folks, how people actually make decisions and design programs based on reality. We are more irrational and biased in our choices then all of us want to accept, predictably!


Safety leadership – What interests your boss fascinates you.

I often get asked what is the role of safety leadership in an organisation. There are a bunch of definitions ranging from bosses that “care” for their people to managers that a focussed on safety through compliance and strong discipline. Personally I see them all playing a role and like all leadership there is a balanced approach.

The most important part of safety leadership is captured in the saying “what interests your boss fascinates you”. It is a saying I heard whilst working for Shell in Singapore from one of the best leaders I had the privilege to work with. For me it is “social thinking” in action and highlights the importance of having your leaders engaged and working with any program you are implementing.

As we know, humans are social beings and our decisions are strongly influenced by the social setting, social norms and social expectations. Leaders set those social expectations.

We’ve seen it time and again that a sure fire way to torpedo your program is to not engage your leaders from the get go. When the workforce is looking for the social norm or social expectation, if your leaders are not on board, the program bombs. The safety world is full of well intentioned but failed programs that have missed this point.

So, if you want a workforce to accept and adopt your next safety program, make sure the next level supervisors support and set that social expectation. Make them your new social norm. Because “what interests your boss fascinates you!”.

Why should a CEO consider behavioural safety?

I’ve worked with and discussed safety with many leaders. Some from the biggest companies in the world. It always amazes me how senior leaders focus only on hazard management and control and caring leadership as the main basis for their safety programs. A constant drive to removal or minimise all hazards overlaid with personal responsibility to do the right thing and leaders supporting and caring for their workforce. A heathy level of compliance to procedures is always present! Sounds pretty straight forward and again, many of the biggest companies in the world do it.

In these cases, I always ask myself “If this worked so well then why do these companies still have fatalities in their business?” Injury frequency rates that have reduced but still remain too high, especially for those zero harm aspirants. This is when I hear “well improving safety is a journey and we constantly look for improvement year on year” or something along these lines.

In my mind it is clear. If you are only looking at hazards and leadership then you are missing half of the equation. The person. And when we talk about the person, what are we talking about?….behaviours. I will say it again and propose a big claim. Any safety program that isnt looking at human behaviours will never get to zero harm!

The irony though is that many of these same organisations recognise leadership behaviours and have major programs investing significant time and money. I personally have been involved in leadership development programs that ultimately aim to make better leaders through behaviours. Why not safety behaviours? Those behaviours that if were in place, people would not have been injured. Why don’t we look at safety in terms of behaviours?

It is time for CEO’s to reconsider what they are focusing on in the safety space and look at the other half of the equation. The “person” and what they do. If leaders can be made through better behaviours then why not safety? Having been involved in both leadership and safety behavioural programs, I know they work.