Faces of EHS, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Faces of EHS: Bob Cummins on Task Execution and Behavior-Based Safety

Bob Cummins has worked in construction for most of his life. He left school at 16 and got a job as a “chain-lad” for 18 months on a large road job before going to university in 1989 to study civil engineering. In 1997, he became involved in health and safety, taking on safety manager roles and heading up several safety departments throughout his career. In 2008, Bob discovered a company using behavioral science to improve business performance including things like forecasting and efficiencies, and he spent the next five years studying the subject.

He founded Sodak in 2013 with the express aim of helping people understand people, and he serves as the company’s Executive Director. The company’s goal is to help make safer, happier, less wasteful workplaces through behavioral insights.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Bob to discuss behavior-based safety and how safety is the result of correct task execution.

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

I remember being frustrated with my job and didn’t really know what to do next. I applied for an internal advert for a safety manager. I didn’t really think it was for me, and I didn’t get the job, but I did get offered a secondment to the safety department for six months. I took it. It was a really good experience. I got to see lots of different parts of the business, from the boardroom to the boot room and everything in between.

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

When I was a safety manager, my boss was very progressive for the time, his philosophy was that we were there to help, to coach, and to support the operations team in their efforts to build things as safely as they could. We weren’t there to catch people out. We were encouraged to build relationships, to actively assist, to take ownership, and to also call out truth to power if we needed to.

Then, the person who taught me most about behavioral science has had a massive influence on my life, not just my career. I find the subject so interesting, and useful. Understanding how behaviors happen is literally life changing.

Q: What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

I remember a few engineering mistakes I made, and my senior engineer at the time saying to me, that mistakes happen, but there is always an opportunity to correct them, if you know you have made a mistake.

As a business owner, my biggest mistake was putting all my eggs in one basket, with one major client, who, we had a really great relationship with until someone new joined that company. They had their own plans, and that didn’t include us. Our contract dried up and we hadn’t been active in creating new relationships or products. We nearly went under. Now, we set aside time to work on relationships and the creation of new products as well as deliver as best a service we can to our current, multiple clients.

Q: What’s your favorite and least favorite part about working in the industry? Would you change anything? 

Okay, I have to confess that I don’t actually like the health and safety industry. I think we have created a lot of problems, and we should humbly apologize for the bureaucracy that persists and the coercive tactics that are often employed to try to force those at-risk to work in a safer way. This isn’t everyone of course, but the safety industry is in a pretty poor shape, compared to where it could and should be.

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

Leaders must understand that safe, reduced risk behaviors have to be purposefully designed into the operation of a business. You can’t just wish that people work safely. Safety is actually the output of correct task execution. Everything therefore should be focused on making correct task execution more by likely.

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

There’s seems to be a lot of activity around safety apps and measuring IT/dashboard platforms. They are snazzy and attractive to organizations who want to play big brother. But I think they are distractions and, in some cases, harmful as they often lead to a less relationship-based form of management.

A better trend I see is a move by some towards an increase in genuine dialogue and discussion, instead of paperwork and checklists. It takes a lot of effort to create working teams that are confident and comfortable at giving each other feedback through conversation, but it is essential to the safe execution of task.

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

I think it has helped some people see how you can get mass behavior change. For others, it has been very frustrating, and perhaps the focus on COVID compliance meant other things were being ignored. I don’t know. It will be interesting to see the analysis that will surely happen. “Safety during the COVID years.” It’s been an amazing experiment in social norms and showed how important it is to get the majority doing the desired behavior in order to get others to follow. But it has also been a very stressful time for many and that will certainly have impacted a lot of people’s health, whether they caught COVID or not.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

I think we need to move away from personal responsibility and more towards collective responsibility. Personal responsibility has been pushed for many years, and that’s ok to a certain extent, but it has had the downside of cultivating individual blame. If I am in a gang of workers and I am not wearing my correct PPE, and those working with me are saying nothing, because they believe I am the only one responsible for my safety, they are actually reinforcing my unsafe behavior. They are supporting it. They are part of the solution as well as me, they need to stop supporting my incorrect working and support my correct working.

Behavior is an output of the environment we are in, it is less about individual choice, and more about the action (behavior) reflecting what the local environment supports. This is what needs to change, this understanding and then action in a collective way, rather than an individual way.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of our clients who put the effort in to apply what we teach them and therefore see great results. Applying behavioral science works all the time when it is applied. The tricky bit is creating an environment that supports its application.

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

Challenge the way we do things now. That’s the only way we will evolve. Read up on some of the better-known safety disruptors and start disrupting the industry. There are some great examples of what works out there, but it is in the minority just now unfortunately. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

No one comes to work to hurt themselves and 99% of people are coming to work to do a good job. So, any program that tries to change the mindset of workers is starting from an incorrect premise. It is not about changing mindset, safe execution of task is a logistical, project management problem to be solved and should be managed as such. The main ingredients that lead to safe and unsafe behaviors are the workers interaction with—the task, the tools supplied, the materials, the time to do the job, their peers, and their supervisor. If you are seeing behaviors you don’t like, change one or more of these variables around the worker and you will see the worker’s behavior change.