OPINION: ‘Addressing workplace safety through behavioural change’

In this opinion piece, David Thomas, general manager of safety equipment supplier ZoneSafe, says it is possible to reduce accidents within the waste and recycling sector by understanding and adapting human behaviour in the workplace.

OPINION: The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) classes the waste and recycling sector as high-risk, with rates of workplace injury and work-related ill-health among the highest of all industries.

There were five fatal accidents reported in the sector in 2019/20, with 30% of these attributed to contact with moving machinery and a further 30% to collision with a moving vehicle.

David Thomas is general manager at ZoneSafe

More recently, a safety notice was issued by HSE around shovel loaders reporting nine fatal accidents had taken place in the last four years, with six of these within the waste and recycling sector (see letsrecycle.com story). Shovel loaders and other industrial vehicles are crucial to waste and recycling operations, but clearly enhanced safety precautions are required around their operation.

When it comes to safety, a layered approach with multiple defences in place is required with factors such as site layout, communication, procedure, equipment, and human behaviour considered. Human error is a common contributing factor but is rarely down to deliberate behaviour. Often accidents resulting from human mistakes reveal broader issues within the business including procedural and training issues. But how can changing the behaviour of people create a safer workplace and how is this achieved?

Changing unsafe behaviour

By understanding human behaviour and identifying triggers for unsafe actions, it becomes possible to pinpoint the root cause of many safety incidents. A common safety breach on site could be the result of a poorly designed procedure, insufficient training, limited space, or blind spots that reduce visibility. By studying the way in which people react in certain circumstances, it is possible to determine the greatest risks to safety and then tweak operation and procedure accordingly.

Safe behaviour must be instilled across the whole organisation from the top down

Safe behaviour must be instilled across the whole organisation from the top down. Inspirational leaders follow the rules they apply to others and lead by example. It is essential the whole organisation work together as a team that promotes safe working behaviour underpinned by a positive company-wide safety culture.


Safety technology is a powerful tool in improving training, communication and situational awareness, and can provide event data and analysis to help determine the reasons behind unsafe actions. By capturing event data and thoroughly analysing it, businesses can take an evidence-based approach to handling unsafe behaviour and taking steps to positive change.

In the HSE wheeled loader alert, driver visibility was identified as a key factor in vehicle/pedestrian collision (picture: Shutterstock)

Wearable technology is highly effective in changing behaviour by actively responding to the actions of the user and delivering messages that reinforce or discourage actions.

From fitness trackers that encourage a healthier lifestyle to proximity detection devices that alert users to injury risk, wearable tech is available for a wide range of uses.

Wearables make a real difference to workplace safety using physical, visual, and audible activators that alert users and operators well in advance of a safety breach.

Interacting with the user in real time with immediate feedback to actions is very persuasive in adapting behaviour. By highlighting unsafe behaviour, awareness is immediately raised and users are encouraged to stop and consider their actions. This leads to raised awareness and behavioural change.

In the HSE wheeled loader alert, poor driver visibility was identified as a key factor in vehicle/pedestrian collision. The HSE recommends total segregation of vehicles and pedestrians in the workplace but when this is not possible, additional measures must be taken and technology has the power to solve common safety concerns. A system that detects and alerts the user before collision with a moving vehicle for example could be the difference between life and death.

Human behaviour

There is no doubt that by carefully considering the role of human behaviour, identifying unsafe actions and addressing them through behavioural change techniques, it is possible to reduce the number of workplace accidents. Knowledge and understanding of why people behave in certain circumstances empowers organisations to bring about change for the better and drive a safer overall working culture.


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