Re-wiring risk: The neuroscience of safety awareness

Posted on February 27, 2014. Filed under: Practical Strategies, Tara Neven | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

To build an ‘intelligent enterprise’, it’s important to consider the biology of risk. This week, Tara Neven, director of neuresource group,  shows that it’s possible to create enhanced safety awareness and better manage risk by adopting a few simple principles that can help ‘re-wire’ the brains of our employees.



Calculating Risk

Effective risk assessment and management is essential to your workers’ safety as well as the safety of those they work with. The foundation for personal safety at work depends upon the  ability to draw one’s attention to, assess, and control hazards. Most workers on site nowadays know the process of how to identify risks and assess hazards. Over time,  however, workers can grow complacent, often assessing the risk to be lower than it is. They may even become desensitised, since risk awareness and safety issues are raised so frequently. Fatigue and distraction all play a part in this.

Point-of-view plays a role in how risk is calculated. A University of Ballarat study found that managers focused upon collecting the paperwork associated with the program whereas workers preferred to rely upon their common sense to keep them safe. For workers, the completion of the paperwork became a ritual that served to appease the organisational rhetoric about safety but had minimal influence upon their awareness of risk and their risk control practices. Consequently, the paperwork created an illusion of safety for managers as much as common sense did for workers. This study found a gap between work as it was imagined by the managers and work as it was actually performed by the workers.

Another factor relates to communication. If messages about safety are muddied with jargon, or if employees can’t see the sense in safety rules, they are not likely to follow processes and procedures.

Finally, the people we work with have a powerful, but subtle, effect on how we think and behave in relation to safety. Since we know emotions are contagious, it’s possible that a relaxed management style regarding safety might result in an overly relaxed attitude towards risk assessment among employees. The leader who is willing to demonstrate the change he wants to see is most likely ultimately to see the change.

Re-wiring Risk

re-wiring brainIt’s possible to teach employees to re-wire their brains in order to become more safety-aware, to manage risk better, and to maintain an injury- and incident-free workplace.  Re-wiring risk isn’t about making snap decisions under pressure when a situation arises.  Rather, it’s about training employees to respond in safe ways out of habit.  This means working with the brain rather than against it. We need to align safety programs that work with the brain’s natural way of functioning.

According to Frank Kros, author of The Brain-Inspired Leader, the brain is organised around a set of ‘natural rules’  or governing principles. In his view, by utilising these rules in simple, focused ways, a leader can bring about positive and sustainable change.

The brain’s operating principles:

    1. Safety comes first

    2. The brain is a lean, meaning-seeking machine

    3. The brain seldom gets it right the first time

    4. Environments impact brain performance

    5. Brains are highly malleable if context is right

    6. Brains are enormously reward dependent

So how do these governing principles relate to safety and risk awareness in the workplace? Let’s look at each one more closely:

Safety first — The good news is that the brain is already set up for safety. We are wired to be on the constant lookout for threats of all kinds — physical, social, emotional.  Neuroscience reveals that ‘gut feelings’ aren’t the stuff of legend. They are real physiological signals that can inform our decision-making — as long as we pay attention to them.

Meaning-making — The brain works hard to make sense of everything it encounters. Above all, make your messages about risk and safety clear, concise, and memorable.

More than once — Be prepared to be patient. Change won’t occur immediately. It’s best to break your plan into manageable chunks and roll it out across time rather than deliver it all at once. Eventually, the changes you want to see will become “just the way we do things around here”.

Environmental impact — Neuroscience research shows that something as simple as allowing employees to have a messy desk brings about creative thinking. Clean desk policies, on the other hand, ensure conformity and precision. Create a safe environment and safe behaviours will follow.

accident2The right context —  Ensure that your staff is properly trained and equipped to handle the roles you are assigning. Remember, too, that the thinking brain is easily fatigued. Most incidents occur when people are tired and unable to focus. Institute a healthy bodies, healthy minds program. Make sure employees take regular breaks. Encourage ‘brain-friendly’ snacks, such as fruit, nuts, trail mix. Value and actively support work-life balance.

Reward dependent — Just as the brain is vigilant against threats, it’s primed towards rewards. Something as simple as a prominently displayed announcement about the number of incident-free days can engender a sense of pride in staying safe.

It’s easy enough to make a list of rules to follow in order to manage risk and create a safe workplace. However, the problem is, when the brain encounters the unexpected, it tends to revert back to old ways of doing things. By definition, risk involves the unexpected.

By working with the way the brain functions, it’s possible to install a safety culture in your organisation where people at all levels work mindfully. Apply attentional intelligence by noticing daily practices and habits, focusing on areas for improvement, and instituting small changes that over time will see new habits develop. Neuroscience research shows that this kind of repeated attention will create new pathways in the brain, bringing about new ways of thinking and behaving that eventually become “just the way we do things around here”.


Tara Neven

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Tara Neven is the co-founder/director of neuresource group.  As an entrepreneur, business strategist, facilitator, learning and development and collective leadership specialist, Tara has over 15 years experience in corporate learning and development, education, business growth and organisational development. The last 10 years of this experience has been in remote and regional areas of Australia. Tara’s primary industry experience has been in the mining and resource sector, construction, local government and medium to large organisations.

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