Understanding Three Concepts in the Psychology of Safety to Achieve Compliance

Studying safety regulations is an important part of our job as safety professionals. It tells us what we need to achieve in order to become compliant.

However, regulations do not tell us how to do it. But, psychology will. Because after all, compliance heavily relies on human behavior and habits.

So, in this article, we will talk about how to use psychology for safety compliance. Let’s dive into it.

Consider the Motivational Triad

According to a recent study in psychology, the human brain always wants these three things: avoiding pain, seeking pleasure, and conserving energy. But what do these things mean?

Well, avoiding pain in the context of safety is all about avoiding the discomforts caused by the changes needed in order to comply with safety regulations. For example, the hassle of wearing personal protective equipment.

Seeking pleasure in the context of safety is all about always wanting to do things their own way. Workers tend to find it pleasurable when they can work the way they want to. Or work in a way that’s easiest for them. For example, not wearing personal protective equipment because it adds weight and is a hassle to move around with.

And conserving energy in the context of safety is all about achieving results with the least energy. Meaning workers always tend to find and use “shortcuts” in their jobs. For example, disregarding safety protocols when transferring materials from one place to another.

So, in order to convince them to follow these regulations, you must convince them that it will let them avoid pain, it will greatly benefit them, and it will use up less energy.

Consider Raising Awareness

The awareness we are referring to in this context is all about grabbing the worker’s attention to get them involved in safety. And you do this by creating change in the work environment to make them become alert. You see, by our natural instinct, change means possible danger.

So, if there are changes made in the office, it raises the awareness of the workers. Making them alert thus resulting in making them follow regulations.

Now, you can do this in simple ways. For example, changing the safety posters in the work area, changing their supervisors, or conducting audits randomly.

Consider What Really Motivates People

Contrary to what most people believe, money doesn’t really motivate people. Well, it’s true that if you increase their salary, it will give them motivation. But it won’t last long.

What really motivates people are pride in their work, a sense of purpose in what they do, and a sense of autonomy. And you can achieve these things again through simple means. For example, recognizing the employee’s achievements, celebrating milestones, making them understand how important their role in the company is, and making them part of the decision-making.

Take Action

And that is how psychology plays a huge role in safety management and why in my recommended book list there are so many psychology books and very few safety books. You can find the links here.

So the next time you’re struggling to get your people to change their behavior, think about applying some hidden psychological triggers into the mix.

3 Key Concepts in the Psychology of Safety

Safety Brye: [00:00:00] Hey there, safety friends. Welcome to the Safety Geek Podcast. I'm Brye Sargent, CSP and 20 year Safety Professional. After spending years training safety leaders across the globe for a large corporation and creating safety programs from the ground up over and over again, I am now sharing my processes and strategies with you.

At the Safety Geek, you will learn how to manage an effective safety program that increases your management support, and employee engagement, all the while helping you elevate your position and move up in your career. If you're ready to step into the role of a safety influencer and leader, you're in the right place.

Let's get to it.

Hello. Hello. Hello, my safety friends today. We are talking about the underlying aspects of safety management. You see, when you

[00:01:00] got into this, you were likely told that safety is all about those government rules, about creating policies and training everybody on those policies. And yes, that is part of it, but the bigger part of safety management is changing behaviors.

Because what they did not tell you when you started was that standing in front of every policy program, SOP and JHA out there is a person with their own thoughts, their own beliefs, and their own experiences, and they may not agree with you and they may not believe what you're telling them. So in fact, it's not just one person, it's like an entire workforce, okay?

With their own thoughts, their own beliefs, and their own experiences. And this is why when you create a new procedure, even if it's approved by management, it doesn't always get followed as you were expecting it to get followed. Now, this doesn't mean that you need to like bring

[00:02:00] down the hammer and that you need to put on that safety police hat. It just means that you need to up your game. You need to learn some hidden triggers to behavior change, and that is what we're talking about today. So before we get started, I wanna make sure that you understand my journey and how I have come to make these realizations. So over the 27 year span of my career, I have had the opportunity to work for organizations that just love to buy other companies.

Seriously, like everywhere I worked, they would just buy another company and then I would have to go in when no due diligence was done and build a safety program from scratch all the way up to getting a compliant, as well as getting it to a VPP level. So I had lots of chances to work with different safety programs and different management teams, and I learned very early on that what works

[00:03:00] for one team doesn't always work for all of them. But as I was gathering all of the different tactics and strategies that I was trying out along the way, what I ended up developing was like these psychological tricks that I could like pull from, like it was a little toolbox. Like, Hey, I tried this. It didn't work. Still don't have management support.

Let's try something else. Let's try this tactic. Let's try this little trigger, right? So when I decided to go back to school, In my forties to sit for my, so that way I could sit for my CSP, I had to choose my degree and there was a lot of things that went into the degree that I chose, so I'm not gonna get into that here, but, I did feel like psychology was extremely closely related to what we already did, so I even specialized my degree into industrial organizational psychology, which focuses on behavior change, motivation, personalities, diverse workforces, and awareness, all the things that we

[00:04:00] have to deal with in safety. So just so you know, that is where I'm coming from and that is my background. So I can totally geek out on the psychology stuff as much as I can geek out on the safety stuff. Okay? So to fully understand how behavior change works in the human brain, there's a concept that you need to grasp, and it is called the motivational triad.

The human brain is always looking for three things. It wants to avoid pain, seek pleasure, and conserve energy. Pain meaning anything that is discomfort, anything that takes it out of its comfort zone, pleasure being anything that keeps it in its comfort zone, as well as anything that's gonna give it a dopamine hit.

And conserving energy means that our brains are lazy. Our brains just literally don't wanna do anything because it takes a lot of calories to do all this thinking as it is. Try not to

[00:05:00] use up anymore. Okay. So those are the three things that our brains are constantly trying to do, and every time we ask somebody to change what they're doing, their brain is going through the motivational triad as well.

It is basically throwing thoughts at that person and creating thoughts to those people to make sure that it avoids pain, seeks pleasure and conserves energy, and those thoughts have a foundation in that person's knowledge and experience. Knowledge being whatever that they've learned or researched or read or taught by their parents and their teachers and experience, meaning anything that they have personally experienced.

Or people close to them have experience or something that happened within their lives. So we're fighting a lot of things here when we try to get somebody to change their behavior. So if we're asking somebody to

[00:06:00] put on PPE and based on their experience, you know, they grew up with their dad in the workshop, never putting PPE on. It was never really enforced in any other place that they worked. And they've been working here for 10 years and have never needed to have eye protection before. And they've been fine. Their experience or knowledge and their belief is gonna be that they don't need it. And you're trying to ask them all of a sudden to wear it and then their brain is like, this is gonna be uncomfortable.

We've never worn it before. You know, might have to get big ones to put over glasses. They wear glasses. The brain also wants to conserve energy, so it's gonna like take energy to track those safety glasses and go get them and take care of them. And then it wants to seek pleasure, right? It actually gets pleasure out of not following the rules.

It's like, Hey, we're getting away with it. We got some confidence, we've got some freedom, right? So as we're trying to get people to change their behavior, their brain is feeding them all of these thoughts. That PPE

[00:07:00] might be a pain and you know, or that they don't need it and it's making it harder for you to actually change that behavior. And this works the opposite way as well. Like if their experience is, you know, a background in a lot of injuries, or they have a lot of knowledge and safety, this works the opposite way as well. So think about ourselves, is that we have a lot of knowledge and safety. We may not experience the injury ourselves, but we actually have seen a lot of injuries ourselves.

Or heard about it in, in our reading and stuff. So it makes it very easy for us to say, yes, I will wear the PPE because we know what could happen. Right? And that is the motivational triad. So the key to getting people to reverse their thoughts or to change their behavior is by injecting them with like knowledge and experience.

We really don't want to inject them with experience. But like let's say that they had the experience of an eye injury from not wearing safety glasses,

[00:08:00] they will likely become an advocate of PPE after that, right? At least for a while. I mean, generally once an injury happens, they will change their behavior for a little bit, but then there is always a chance of what you call a habit formation extinction, where they kind of go back and they go back to their ways again.

So the trick is to get them to believe that PPE, or whatever it is you're wanting to change in the process, that it is one easy, that it doesn't take a lot of energy. Two pleasurable meaning like they're gonna benefit from it. This is why we're always talking about, you need to talk about the personal benefits to the people.

And three, that it actually is gonna help them avoid pain, right? That it's not a pain to wear the PPE. It's actually avoiding pain because there are all these terrible things that could happen if you don't wear it. And then if you can talk to them in the tone of this motivational triad, it actually becomes easier to change people's thoughts and beliefs and their, and

[00:09:00] get them to follow what you're asking them to do. So now that you kind of understand how the brain works, that's obviously not the only thing going on up there. There are three areas that I think you need to pay attention to when it comes to trying to get people to change their behavior and follow what you're asking them to do. The first one is awareness.

This is like the squirrel effect is the way that I like to think about awareness. If you've ever seen the movie Up where you have the dog and he is talking and then all of a sudden it's squirrel. You know, that type of thing. That is what I'm talking about. That's attention. That means if something grabbed its attention or its awareness.

It could also be called like the shiny object syndrome. So when you can build awareness of an area of a situation, or of the possibility of what could happen, you are avoiding complacency. Because what happens with complacency is the worker is typically on autopilot and they're just kinda like doing

[00:10:00] the job through autopilot and they don't necessarily see the things that are going on around them. And then also if it is like more work for them to actually pay attention, the brain is not gonna allow them to see it either. So like there could be something right in front of us and we could say, Nope, don't see it. I can't find it anywhere. My kids love to call this the mom effect actually, and you can look this up.

There's some memes about it, like mom witchcraft and the mom thing. They call it the mom thing. But this is when, and I, and I've actually seen this with a lot of moms, so I'm sure any moms out there, they can relate. Maybe dads too. But this is where like the kid is like, Hey mom, I can't find my, whatever, like my red hat or something like that.

And the mom is like, Hey, it's on your desk next to your keyboard on the left hand side. And the kid goes to look for it and they're like, Nope, it's not here, mom. It's not here. You gotta come find it. Is the brain because the brain just doesn't want to find it. The brain wants the mom to do it. Right. And then the mom shows up and it's

[00:11:00] like right there, right where the mom said it was. And my kids are all like, it's witchcraft, right? But it's just one of those funny things that the brain does. So you always have to make sure that you're building awareness and that you're grabbing attention. And one way that you can do this is by making sure you're changing things up regularly. So one easy way to change things up regularly would be to change your posters or change your signs.

I can't tell you how many times you go into a place and the sign is the same as it was six months earlier. Right? You wanna make sure that any of your safety posters or signage, that you change it up on a frequent basis. I would say at least every two weeks, even weekly, if you could do it because you wanna make sure that the brain has something that it can kind of grab onto.

And I'll explain that in just a second. Other ideas could be that you have them change workstations. Maybe if they've always worked at station two and now you have them working at station four. Just that change of environment is gonna build some awareness.

[00:12:00] You can also change supervisors if that's possible in your work, where if they're always reporting to one person, now they're reporting to another, the brain's gonna be hyper alert in that area as well, or on a regular basis.

Because the way that our brains are wired is that they're always looking for danger, right? Because they wanna avoid danger. So it's looking, even though you're there and you're doing your work, your brain is actually looking for things that could hurt us. Okay? So it's trying to make sure that there's nothing new out there and new things kind of grab its attention, and I won't get into it here.

But another way that you can build awareness and attention is by making things memorable. And I actually have a guide on this. It's called The Five Surprising Ways to Make Employees Crazy for Safety. I'll pop a link in the show notes. But that actually works on how the memory works. And when you make things memorable, it's more front of mind and it's easier for them to retrieve. So there's tons of different

[00:13:00] ideas in there. I think it's like 14 pages, the different ideas to make things memorable. So definitely check that out. So that's awareness and attention. Kind of like the same thing. So always be thinking about that as you're trying to get people to follow your policies and your procedures.

The next one is motivation. So contrary to popular belief, humans are not motivated by money as much as we think they are. Now, they do need to get paid enough so that way you take the lack of money off the table. So think back to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and the very bottom is psychological or physiological needs like your food, your water, your rest, your health, right?

Those have to be covered before they can start thinking about safety and security. So you do need to make sure that they're getting paid enough so that way that's off the table. If they're not getting paid enough, then yes, money becomes

[00:14:00] a motivator, but it's not gonna motivate them to do what you're wanting them to do. It's just gonna motivate them enough to like, I have to make more money so that way I can pay my bills, type of thing. Right. The bills being like the bare necessity of bills. Once the bare necessity of bills is paid off, then money is not as big of a motivator than we think it is, and they like literally study after study after study.

Money has been at the bottom of the list of motivators. What is more motivating to human beings is a sense of pride, a sense of purpose and autonomy. Meaning that they have to have pride in their work, right? And that they need to know that what they're doing, what the bigger picture of what they're doing is.

If I just say, Hey, I'm gonna have you, you know, stuff these envelopes, but I don't know why I am gonna be less motivated than if I know the bigger picture as to where these envelopes are going and what those envelopes are gonna be doing. And then autonomy meaning like they

[00:15:00] do have some control over their own work and their own decisions. Okay. So micromanaging people, you know, being right there, making sure that they're, they're, I don't know, counting their widgets or whatever they do, does not work as well for motivation. So how can you use pride, purpose, and autonomy in your safety program? Well, you could make sure that you highlight people's achievements, right?

Give them pride. You're gonna highlight their achievements. You're going to call out their good work. You're gonna maybe create leaderboards, right? And if you have leaderboards of like, this person was lifting correctly today and this person was doing it the next day or whatever, and you create like leaderboards are actually going to motivate people to lift correctly. You could have shared goals, you could make sure that they understand, give them the broad, big picture of how their work affects the goals.

[00:16:00] That shared goal doesn't necessarily need to be a company goal. It could just be like the goal of getting out of work on time today. Or it could be the goal of making sure that, you know, no one goes home super tired so they can spend time with their family, whatever it is, but you have to give them purpose for what their work is.

Maybe sharing customer reviews, right? Like, you worked on this and this was the result from the customer or the client, and giving them that sense of, of pride and purpose within their work. And lastly, you want to empower them to improve or be part of decisions, and that's where collaboration comes into play.

Like when you are actually creating your policies, your programs, everything you're having them do, or even the processes of the work that they're doing, allowing them to be part of it, or even empowering them to do things their own way as long as the end

[00:17:00] result is the same, or empowering them to help others or to come up with better processes. So when you're thinking about your safety program, just think about ways that you can show pride, that you can build purpose, and that you can allow them some autonomy and you're actually gonna motivate them to do more and to follow the safe work practices. Now, the last one that I wanted to chat about was habit formation, and I like to think of behavior change as habit formation because when you're asking them to change a behavior, you're asking them to change their habits.

The behavior that they're demonstrating is just what they're used to doing, and you're just asking them to change that to a different habit. Now, when a task is on repeat, That is how you build a habit is like when you just are constantly doing it over and over again. And when you do this enough, the neural networks become

[00:18:00] so fast that they do get that autopilot sense with their habits. And a task actually gets shifted from like the higher power brain to the lower power brain. 'cause now it is like super easy to do that task because it is just on autopilot. This means like think about in your own life, like when you get up to get ready for work, you're pretty much on autopilot. You do the same things over and over again.

If you've ever driven to work and you can't even remember making the turns to get you there, that's autopilot mode, right? It's almost like complacency. But if the habits are good habits, then it's okay that it's complacency if they don't need to have that awareness. It's like that's the hard part is that it's like almost to that complacency part, but you need them to be aware of their surroundings.

Like it's okay that you don't remember making the turn as you were driving into work, but were you really aware of your surroundings as you were driving?

[00:19:00] Like that's the important part. So the way that I like to think about habit formation and how the neural networks are created is imagining driving a big old truck through a field and like this field has never been driven through before.

It doesn't have a road in it. It doesn't have a path. It's just a nice green pasture. Little bumpy, you could tell 'cause the, the waves are going at the field right. The first time you drive through it, it's gonna be tough. It's not gonna be that easy because you don't know where you're going. You don't know what the ground is like, maybe you take it a little bit slow, right?

But then when you drive that same path over and over and over again, you're smoothing it out and eventually you make a road that's just like a neural network. So the first time you have somebody do something, do a task, and change that behavior, it's gonna be very slow. But if you can get them to do it on repeat over and over and over again, it becomes easier because now you're building those, neural network connections in their

[00:20:00] brain that is going to start building that habit. So this is where habits can become a really good thing when you have them build that habit to do it the safe way. Now, unfortunately, A lot of workers come to us with some very bad habits. These could be very bad habits that were instilled by their parents, by their friends, by other jobs, or maybe even they came into your workplace and they were trained by somebody who showed them all the shortcuts to do the job and expressed contempt about the company or about the rules, and then that started breeding like bad habits within your new workers.

So that's something to look out for too, like who you have training your new workers is extremely important. You wanna make sure that person has really good habits too. And habit formation is extremely time consuming. So anybody with kids, you know, how long it took you to get

[00:21:00] them to start brushing their teeth on their own? It's years, right? Years. So anybody with kids can attest to that. So that whole myth about like, oh, 30 days to build a habit, or 90 days to build a habit, I call BS on that because it is really ridiculous. It actually depends upon that person's beliefs and that person's experiences, whether or not they will build a habit.

So it comes really back down to that motivational triad as well. So what I want you to think about is like, I have seen this, I'm sure you have too, where a person has like a heart attack and they can immediately change their eating habits like immediately. So this is, shows you like habits can be formed like within a moment, or they can be formed over years, you know? But if the person who had the heart attack believes that like heart attacks happen, I'm gonna get

[00:22:00] another one. Or that's just life. They necessarily don't change their eating habits. But that person that had the heart attack that was like, oh my gosh, I need to stop or I'm gonna die, they'll change 'em immediately.

I remember my mother-in-law was a smoker, and we could not get her to stop smoking for nothing, and she tried over and over and over and over again and just constantly failed. Then she had a heart scare, never picked up another cigarette again. Ever. We're talking like 30 years, right? So it does happen. Now,

you can force change behavior change through incentives and rewards, but there is a trick to it, right? So you wanna get them to be doing the behavior over and over again to build up that neural network, to build that habit, and one way to force them to do things over and over again the right way is through incentives and rewards. Here's the tricks. Too often we are making incentives that are

[00:23:00] really long-term incentives. Like, oh, you get these points, and the points have to add up for you to give, you know, whatever. Incentives and rewards don't necessarily need to be prizes and money. It could just be positive recognition or highlighting their good achievements during a pre-shift meeting.

In the very beginning, you need to be doing this. Like when you first make the change, you need to be doing this on a regular basis, like multiple times a day, reinforcing that you see them, you see that they're doing the right thing, and thank you very much, and talking to them about internalizing it with them, right?

Then once you see them doing it on a regular basis where you're just constantly, you know, they got it down, you can then spread out. Maybe then you only give them recognition or rewards every couple of days. Maybe it's like on a three day schedule or a two day schedule just for a little bit. And then it has to be become randomized because what happens is the brain starts to pick up the

[00:24:00] pattern. And the brain would be like, okay, I'll wear my steel toed boots on Mondays and Fridays, because that's when they're checking for them, that type of thing, right? So it needs to be sporadic. And they've done studies on these too. It's the studies on, recognition is just amazing and behavior change. So if you ever get a chance to read some of that, it's really, really interesting.

But once you're doing it sporadically and you see that they're always hitting the mark, they're always doing it right, then you can actually turn it into a reinforcement schedule. Because reinforcement has to happen no matter what. So until a habit becomes ingrained, like brushing your teeth, type, ingrained, you're constantly going to have to reinforce it because there's this thing that's called extinction that if you are not watching it and you're not checking it, the brain is gonna go back to going like, Hey, I want this to be easy. Again, this is why diets end up failing a lot too, because people are just like, no, I want this easy.

[00:25:00] We're going back like, okay, I lost my weight, hit my goal. Now I'm gonna go back to eating the cookies and cake. Right? It's always gonna wanna revert back because that's, those are the habits that are instilled in it.

So you have to develop some reinforcement actions, and this just might be like, a check-in once a month or every six weeks, you do a little assessment or something like that. So what I want you to realize is that rewards and recognition, it doesn't have to be monetary. We already talked about how money does not work, but it does have to be some sort of positive recognition.

Now, a lot of people like to use negative reinforcement, right? Writing them up, suspending them, whatever. And that is definitely an option, and it does work in the short term, but negative reinforcement has never been shown to last in the long term. So if you are constantly assessing people and always bringing up the negative, it actually causes

[00:26:00] more problems in the long run. You end up having worse morale, worse turnover. Some cases retaliation, some cases defiance. I've even seen it where they've damaged property and things like that because it's just a constant bombardment of negative reinforcement. So you really do wanna do more positive than negative. And what I teach my people is like, for every negative, you need to have two to three positives.

To kind of balance that out. So you do need to have a combination of both. 'cause you can't just let people get away with doing things that are really, really bad or not listening, but you do need to have a nice little balance there. So when you're looking at your safety program, how can you build habit formation into it?

So let's say that you are teaching something new. You have a new policy, a new procedure, or maybe you're making a change, right? You want to do lots of coaching and recognition, right in the beginning. On a daily basis, multiple times a day, and it doesn't necessarily

[00:27:00] have to be you, and then you wanna spread it out so that way it's eventually every couple of days, right?

And then next you randomize it, like, yeah, I may check on it today, I may not. And you have to have some sort of random schedule in there. And then you just move it into a reinforcement schedule, like a routine assessment or something like that. And when you start to see in that reinforcement schedule that compliance is starting to slip.

Then you just increase the recognition and you go backwards because compliance is going to slip. Just know that, just a fact of life, and that's the way the human brain works. So you just have to have a plan going, okay, compliance is slipping. Let's do a focus session on this, and we're gonna do a lot of recognition for the next couple of weeks.

So just know that habits will always revert and that your process, whatever you put in place for your processes, that they just need to be prepared for that. So I know this is like a longer episode than what I normally do, but this is a lot of information. But I wanted to make sure that you understood like how psychology plays

[00:28:00] such a huge role in safety management and why In my recommended book list, there are so many psychology books and very few safety books because I honestly feel like psychology has a lot more to do with what we're trying to get done.

Then all of the rules and regulations, those are just like the guides to me. But, uh, you can find a link in the show notes for my recommended reading list. So the next time that you find yourself struggling to get people to change their behavior, I want you to think about how you can apply some of these hidden psychological triggers into the mix instead of just chalking it up to like, they don't listen.

So, I hope you got a lot outta this, and I will see you in the next episode. Bye for now.

Highlights From This Episode:

  • Understand the Power of Psychology: Influence human behavior for more effective safety compliance.
  • The Motivational Triad: Align safety practices with Avoiding Pain, Seeking Pleasure, and Conserving Energy.
  • True Motivators: Discover essential drivers like pride, purpose, and autonomy for employee commitment.
  • Empowering Safety Culture: Build a mindset of unwavering compliance among employees.
  • Long-lasting Impact: Psychology-driven safety approaches for a safer and more secure work environment.


Remember, safety compliance is not just about ticking boxes – it’s about creating a safety-conscious mindset among your team.

Now it’s your turn to make a difference. Empower your workplace with psychology-driven safety practices and witness the remarkable impact they can have on your organization’s safety journey.

Let’s build a safer and more motivated workforce together!

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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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