OHS Canada Magazine

The neuroscience of safety habits

Breaking neural connections takes effort and energy, while re-firing and re-wiring new synaptic connections takes repetition and time


With an understanding of how employees develop unconscious and hard-wired habits, you can provide them with the compassion, framework and encouragement that will enable them to successfully adopt new habits. (Mopic/Adobe Stock)

One of the most challenging aspects of safety management is changing employee’s safety habits.

At best, it’s exhausting, and at worst, initiatives don’t seem to work at all. However, when we understand what a habit is and how it develops, we can use this understanding to help employees change their “bad” habits more easily.

The dictionary defines habit as: something that we do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that we are doing it. Alternatively, a habit is the recurring, often unconscious and automatic patterns of thought, behaviour, or feelings that are acquired through frequent repetition.

Examples from the road

Take driving a vehicle, for example. If you remember your first time, it was likely awkward and maybe even a little scary.

Why? Because you were doing something you had never done before and did not have any neural connections formed in your brain for driving a car. When we learn something new, we make new neural connections in our brain. That’s what learning is.

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However, as you get more experience driving the car, and neurons continue to fire in the neocortex, your brain makes more, and stronger, synaptic connections. After months and years of repetition, the neuroconnections become so strong, you don’t have to even think about it.

Your body, as the unconscious mind, can drive the car all while having a rousing conversation with your passenger. It’s become a habit.

Now let’s say you rent a car while on vacation in New Zealand, where you must sit on the right side of the vehicle and drive on the left-hand side of the road. You’ll really have to think about what you’re doing, and if you’re like me, you might even have a close call or worse, when habit causes you to turn out on the right side of the road into head-on traffic!   

To successfully navigate driving in New Zealand, you’ll need to fire and wire new neural connections for driving on the left-hand side of the road. And if you stay in New Zealand for years, the neurons in your brain for driving on the right-hand side of the road in Canada will unfire and unwire. You’ll start to forget.

This example demonstrates the neuroplastic nature of the brain. Neurons that fire and wire together when we learn new things can be unfired and unwired if we don’t practice what we’ve learned.

In other words, bad habits learned can be unlearned. However, like cutting a rope, breaking neural connections takes effort and energy, while re-firing and re-wiring new synaptic connections takes repetition and time.

Hacks for making safety habits easier to change

Focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want. As a leader, focus on the outcomes you want to achieve. If you are frustrated, you will tend to make the situation and people’s response to you worse.

Don’t try to make too many changes all at once. Be selective about the habits you want to change that will have the greatest impact on evolving your safety culture. Too much change at once can overwhelm employees and shut them down.

Start with “why” — then “what” and “how.” For example, if a commercial roofer is implementing an improved pre-job hazard assessment process, it would be an awesome idea to emphasize the fact that recently one of the crews cut through an electrical cable running across a flat roof, because they had not identified it ahead of time with a proper hazard assessment. The outcome could have been serious injury or death. This is the big “why” for the change in how hazard assessments have been habitually “pencil whipped” in the past and not communicated to the entire crew before starting work.

A solid management system provides the framework for habits to change. Substandard conditions are generally easy to correct; simply clean up the spill or remove the tripping hazard. Substandard acts and practices or “habits,” on the other hand, are not so easy and can only be controlled by an effective management system:

  • Set clear standards for expected practices and outcomes in writing. 
  • Train everyone on the standard with emphasis on the “why.”
  • Enforce the standards equally and consistently with tough love.

Force creates resistance. If possible, involve workers in developing the standards that will affect them, or at a minimum allow them choice. For example: Would you like to wear the blue safety glasses, or the orange ones? Would you like to do the monthly inspection at the beginning or at the end of the month?

Consistent repetition is key. Create an environment that supports breaking of the old habits until the new habits can be formed. For example: dispose of the old PPE that’s not to be used anymore, to remove temptation. Or schedule the new inspection frequency and attend with the employees to ensure they do it and to support them.

Be prepared for people to backslide. Know that “forgetting” or backsliding is part of the process and never take it personally. Remember it takes time for the neural connections to unfire and unwire the old habits, and then re-fire and re-wire the new ones!

Celebrate and reward progress, no matter how small. Everyone likes praise, and positive emotions have been shown to make people smarter. This in turn reinforces the desired habits and encourages employees make the right choice again in the future.

With an understanding of how employees develop unconscious and hard-wired habits, you can provide them with the compassion, framework and encouragement that will enable them to successfully adopt new habits.

This in turn will help keep them and their co-workers safe and healthy on the job while evolving your safety culture.

Theo Heineman, CRSP, CHSC, B.Sc.Ag., founder and CEO of 1Life Workplace Safety Solutions in Winnipeg, is a certified NeuroChangeSolutions consultant and a regular columnist for OHS Canada.

This Neurosafety column appears in the July/August 2021 issue of OHS Canada.


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