COVID-19, Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Dominic Cooper Talks Behavioral Safety and Managing COVID-19

Some people are fearful of saying anything about safety, so psychology can be an effective tool for safety leaders to use. According to Dominic Cooper, this week’s Faces of EHS profile, psychology-based behavioral safety is about finding ways to give people a voice using appropriate mechanisms, so that hazards and safety issues can be safely reported and discussed. Read on for more about Cooper’s career, the importance of behavioral psychology in safety, and some grounded advice for helping safety professionals navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dominic Cooper Headshot

How did you get your start in the environment, health, and safety (EHS) field?

After enlisting in the Corps of Engineers and working construction for 10 years, I went to college and ended up studying for a PhD that applied psychological constructs to construction safety in the late 1980s, which, in essence, was employee engagement and goal-setting focused on safety behavior. Today, it’s called behavior-based safety, but it worked so well that I was asked by numerous clients around the globe to help them design and implement it in their facilities. That was the start of BSMS and a 30-year career.

What do you like the most about your career in EHS?

I have seen the world, having worked in 60 countries or so, and have come to realize the safety issues are the same, regardless of the country, but the different cultural issues make the job fascinating.

What is the most difficult or frustrating part of your job?

When organizational politics get in the way of the safety focus, resulting in executive teams engaging in Google safety in an emotional response to an incident or engaging in defensive behavior to suffocate necessary change. In both cases, employees tend to withdraw from the safety effort, as their real safety issues are ignored.

What do you see as the main emerging trends, both positive and negative, affecting the future of the EHS profession?

The most positive is to see the collective focus on the prevention of serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) in the workplace. Long may it continue. The most negative is the recent introduction of HR topics into EHS (e.g., workplace stress, well-being, etc.). This causes a loss of focus on EHS. For example, in 2018, during a yearlong workplace stress campaign in the U.K. construction industry, a 23% increase in construction deaths was recorded.

How can EHS professionals apply behavior-based and/or psychological safety principles in response to the current COVID-19 crisis?

From a behavioral psychology standpoint, the fundamental guiding principle is to “optimize the situation to optimize behavior.” Great examples we are seeing include supermarkets putting tape on the floor every 6 feet as social distance markers and companies closing down entirely and asking employees to work remotely.

This is not possible for key workers or essential industries, but they can do a risk assessment for every event and cancel everything that is nonessential (i.e., avoid) or have a Skype meeting instead (i.e., substitute.). All nonessential personnel should be teleworking from home, and appropriate barriers (e.g., tape/tables) should be used to keep people at a distance if they are in the physical workplace (i.e., isolate). Look at ways of maintaining and sustaining social distancing by reducing the number of chairs in canteens and meeting rooms, make sure people are constantly washing their hands or using barrier creams (i.e., reduce the risk), and provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and constantly clean everything after use with disinfectant (e.g., protect).

From a psychological safety standpoint, listen to your employees’ concerns, and where feasible and reasonable, act on what they said. It might prove beneficial to have a suggestion book or box available for people to record any ideas, with this being checked by EHS folks every couple of hours or so. Similarly, provide feedback to all employees every single day using multiple communication channels to keep people informed about the company’s responses to the crisis, suggestions that have been enacted, etc. Highlight the positives where possible to boost morale.

For those locked down and working from home, the key to success is clear daily communication with their boss and knowing exactly what’s expected of them. The company should provide guidance on how to structure the day and require employees to designate a clear time for a daily 10-minute phone call with their boss so clear expectations can be communicated, with an end-of-day phone call to provide updates on progress.

Similarly, the company should provide advice on how to overcome stress or loneliness; how to set up a safe workstation; and how to avoid feeling abandoned, isolated, and anxious (people are concerned about their loved ones, their finances, and their company’s survival). Now is the time for companies to step up and show they really do care for their employees. Flip this terrible situation, and create an unbreakable emotional bond with your people. It will pay you back tenfold once the crisis is over.

What advice do you have for people just entering the profession?

As my grandmother told me, “Always treat everyone how you want to be treated.” In the EHS world, that is sound advice indeed.

Dominic Cooper PhD, CFIOSH, CPsychol, is an award-winning author, a Chartered Psychologist, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS), a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH), and a Member of the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP). He pioneered the use of behavioral safety in the U.K. construction industry on behalf of the British Health & Safety Executive (HSE) while studying his PhD in the School of Management at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST).

In addition to being a sought-after speaker, Cooper publishes widely on the topics of personnel selection, motivation, quality, risk, safety culture, leadership, and behavioral safety. In 1998, he published Improving Safety Culture: A Practical Guide. He also established www.behavioural-safety.com, the world’s first free, interactive website devoted to behavioral safety and the first online “behavioral safety software service.” This has since grown into sophisticated safety leadership software (https://peer-leader.com).

A past full-time Associate Professor of Safety Education and Visiting Professor of Psychology at Indiana University, Bloomington, Cooper’s recent works are Strategic Safety Culture Roadmap, Navigating the Safety Culture Construct: A Review of the Evidence, and Criterion-Related Validity of the Cultural Web When Assessing Safety Culture.

Cooper is the founder of BSMS, a foremost provider of safety culture improvement processes, including PEER®, a Behavioural Safety Leadership process, and B-Safe®, an IOSH award-winning, behavioral-based safety process. Highly successful in reducing clients’ injury rates over the last three decades around the globe, BSMS’s clients have achieved the status of “world-class” safety performance in numerous industrial sectors.

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Would you like to be profiled in a future Faces of EHS and share your experiences, challenges, etc.? Or, do you know anyone else in EHS you think has an interesting story to tell? Write us at jscace@blr.com and cdouyard@blr.com and include your name and contact information; be sure to put “Faces of EHS” in the subject line.