You know how I geek out over psychology just as much as I do safety.  One of the most interesting topics I found during my studies was the adult learning principles of operant and conditioned learning. So, I immediately related them to how they can be used to improve safe work behaviors.

I’m not talking directly about the different ways adults learn. But more about the psychology of learning – what studies have shown works best.


Habits are actions we take without even thinking about them.  And they are so wired in our brain, that they are done on cruise-control. Like brushing your teeth, for example.

To create a habit you need a trigger, an action (the habit), and a reward.

In safety, we want to build safety habits.  And we want employees to follow safety rules without even thinking about it.  For it to be uncomfortable not to follow those rules.

In this episode, we talk about the discovery by Pavlov and conditioned learning. How it works and how it is related to habit formation.  I don’t mean to compare employees to Pavlov’s dog. But we can glean a lot from looking at the experiment through a safety lens.

Habits take a long time to form – forget everything you have heard about 21 days or 90 days.

To push the habit-building to go faster, we can use operant learning.


BBS is a method of safety training that focuses on positive reinforcement.  It has been shown that when you have positive coaching sessions with employees, they change their work behaviors; and this change is long-lasting.

This is different than the old style of writing employees up or disciplining them for safety violations. In BBS we’ve seen that doesn’t work.

Both of these methods are adult learning principles at work: Operant Learning.

It is a method of using reinforcement to change behavior.  And studies have been conducted on both positive and negative. As well as the frequency of both, to determine what works best.

Be sure to listen to this week’s episode to learn more.


I bet you find this just as interesting as I do.  Please tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment on this post.  If you want to dive deeper into the research, I put some links below.

Highlights From This Episode:

  • How habits are formed
  • What Conditioned learning is – Pavlov
  • What Operant Learning is – Behavior-Based Safety
  • Using this information to do your job better
  • How to change employee’s bad safety habits

Links Mentioned:

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Hi, I'm Brye (rhymes with sky)!  I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience.  Specializing in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture, I have trained and coached many safety managers, just like you, on how to effectively manage workplace safety in the real world.   I would love to help you too.

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