Faces of EHS, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Faces of EHS: Dr. Judy Agnew on Behavior-Based Safety

For 30 years, Dr. Judy Agnew has worked with clients in a variety of industries using behavioral science to improve safety performance and ensure that organizations are designed safely. Judy is a recognized thought leader in the field of behavioral safety, safety leadership, and safety culture, and she has an active speaking schedule, including presenting at major safety conferences such as ASSP and NSC, as well as key corporate events. She recently received the Sir Moir Lockhead Safety Award which recognizes leaders in operational safety around the world.

Judy is currently the Senior Vice President of Safety Solutions at Aubrey Daniels International, a behavior-based consulting organization dedicated to accelerating the safety and business performance of companies worldwide using positive, practical approaches grounded in the science of behavior. Judy has authored four workplace safety books including Safe by Accident? with Aubrey Daniels, A Supervisor’s Guide to Safety Leadership, and her latest book Safe by Design: A Behavioral Systems Approach to Human Performance Improvement with Dave Uhl.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Judy to talk about her EHS journey, behavior-based safety, and focusing on organizational systems instead of blaming individuals.

Q: How did you get your start in the field?

When I joined ADI, my primary interest was applying behavioral science to workplace issues, regardless of what they were. During my first many years at ADI, I helped clients with improving quality, customer service, sales—you name it. This was 30 years ago, so behavior-based safety was just emerging as a specialty area. As our success in helping clients improve safety took off, I got pulled into doing more and more safety work. I wasn’t very interested at first, but as I started seeing the value we brought to our clients, I was hooked.

Q: Who has been your biggest influence in the industry?

Aubrey Daniels. Anyone who has met him or heard him speak will understand. He is a master at demonstrating the power of a behavioral approach to safety. I learned so much from him, and more importantly, I was inspired by him. His motivation has always been to improve people’s work lives, and of course, safety is a huge part of doing that. I had the good fortune of co-authoring the book Safe by Accident with him and have been very proud of the influence that book has had in terms of helping organizations improve safety leadership and safety culture.

Q: What is your favorite and least favorite part about working in the industry?

The best part of working in safety is knowing or believing you help people stay safe. Unlike those in the medical profession who have clear evidence that they save lives, we in safety have no direct evidence. But, at the end of the day, I feel confident that if people better understand how to positively influence behavior, that will absolutely result in fewer injuries and fatalities. The worst part for me is the travel. I love to travel for fun, but I could do without business travel.

Q: How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

Making safety a value is a great objective because it is a unifying value—everyone agrees that safety is important. Of course, stating safety is a value doesn’t automatically translate into improvement. Behaving in ways consistent with our values requires deliberate effort. Most of us would say being healthy is a personal value, however our behavior is often not aligned with that value. For example, we may eat too much processed food and not exercise enough.

For leaders, behaving in ways consistent with the value of safety is complex. It requires being able to predict how your behavior as a leader will influence the behavior of those you lead, and then checking that impact against your values. All leaders have good intentions when it comes to safety, but that doesn’t always translate into good safety leadership. For example, when a serious incident occurs, a leader may choose to discipline the employee thinking that will send the message that safety is important and lead to improved safety. Regrettably, this is often not the outcome.

We have worked with so many leaders who are shocked to find out that workers are not reporting incidents and frustrated that they are not fully engaged in safety. It is hard for leaders to see their role in both those problems. They have good intentions; they would likely say they have safety as a value, but their behavior is actually undermining safety. We talk about this issue in our new book Safe by Design. It is a challenging but important issue to tackle.

Q: Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

One current positive trend in safety is an increased focus on organizational systems. For too long, workers have been blamed for incidents when the true cause can be linked back to organizational systems the worker has no control over. The Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) movement has really brought this to the forefront, which is great. Unfortunately (and frustratingly), some in that movement bill HOP as anti-Behavior-Based Safety; a complete misunderstanding of a behavioral approach that has always been a systems approach. Regardless of the controversy, it is essential that organizations move away from blame and look to the environment for the causes of at-risk behavior. One of the most important roles of leaders in safety is modifying organizational systems to better set workers up to work safely.

Another trend that has behavioral implications is the increased use of technology. We have robots doing the most dangerous jobs, devices that set up alarms to wake drivers when they nod off, and devices that can stop vehicles if collisions are imminent. These are life-saving innovations. There is also technology that enables the monitoring of behavior such as driving speed. Again, this is very helpful technology but how it is used is critical. If the technology is used primarily to identify at-risk behavior and thus leads to increased use of negative consequences, the side effects are often anger, resentment, and reduced engagement in safety. It is essential that performance data be used to acknowledge safe behavior, not just at-risk behavior. If you understand behavior scientifically, you understand that building in more negative consequences will ultimately undermine safety culture.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic complicated or exacerbated problems with safety culture?

COVID has far reaching impacts, but one that I see is related to work relationships. Relationships are fundamental to safety culture and COVID has disrupted relationships as people work from home, deal with staff shortages, are out for long periods of time, etc. Furthermore, the politicization and polarization around COVID has also undermined working relationships.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I would say having made a difference in people’s lives. As noted, I am not always able to see the impact our work has on people (it’s impossible to see the incident that didn’t happen because of something I have done), but fortunately sometimes people tell me. I love hearing that our work makes a difference in workplace safety, and I also love hearing that learning about behavioral science makes a difference in people’s home lives—leading to better relationships with children and significant others and helping people meet personal goals.  

Q: Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

I think it is important for safety professionals to learn as much as they can about the science of behavior. Safety is all about influencing behavior—the behavior of leaders and the behavior of the workforce. There are scientific principles that will help them be more effective.

Click here to hear more from Dr. Judy Agnew.