Unsafe Behavior Is a Downstream Indicator

At first glance, the suggestion that behavior is a “downstream” indicator may seem ridiculous, because in the world of safety and accident prevention, behavior is almost universally viewed as an “upstream or leading” indicator.  The more unsafe behaviors that are occurring, the more likely you are to have an undesired event and thus an increase in incident rate (downstream or lagging indicator).  This view is the basis for most “behavior based safety” programs.

Over the past few years, however, there has been a great deal of research in the area of human factors which suggests that there are variables much more upstream than behavior that can help us decrease the chances of an incident.  The human factors approach views an individual’s behavior as a component of a much more complex system which includes contextual factors such as social (supervisory and peer) climate,  organizational climate (rules, values, incentives, etc.), environment climate (weather, equipment, signage, etc.), and regulatory climate (OSHA, BOEMRE, etc.).  Individuals work within these climates, evaluate action based on their interpretation of these climates and then act based on that evaluation.

Research has shown that individuals, for the most part make rational decisions based on the information that they have at their disposal in the moment.  If an individual “understands” that her boss really rewards speed, then she is more likely to pick up speed even if she is not capable of working at that speed and thus increases the likelihood of having an incident.  While speed of performance is a behavior, it is the result of the person’s knowledge of the demands of the climate and is therefore a downstream indicator.  Evaluating and impacting the climate is thus more upstream and should be the focus of our intervention programs.  When we can impact the decision making process (upstream) we can have a much better chance of creating safe/desired behavior (downstream).