The Complexity of Safety Targets

By: , Posted on: February 12, 2014

Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations - CoverWhen we wish to achieve an aim, it helps to formulate a goal. By doing this, we focus our energy on everything that contributes to it. A well-defined target acts as a creative force; it has a tendency to realize itself. However, unfortunately within the world of safety management, targets are formulated in a negative way. As a result they hardly ever evoke positive forces.

Negative targets

My driving instructor started my first lesson with this insight “You go in the direction you are looking.” My head should always be focused on what is in front of us, where we were going. How different that is from current safety practice. We measure our safety performance by what is behind us, by calculating the number of accidents in the latest period. Thus, we concentrate on insecurity and we mostly learn what we should not do. By doing this, we wrongly confuse safety with a lack of insecurity and we lose sight of what we actually should do to promote safety.

Inciting abuse

Another disadvantage of negative targets is that they incite us to abuse. If reaching a safety target is put at risk by an employee who twists his ankle on site, it is tempting to bring the unfortunate guy to the hospital and to declare that he simply tripped up on the way home.  We all are familiar with examples of accident figures being massaged. This is typical human behavior. A few twisted facts can make the difference between missing or reaching a target. This can never be the intended objective of target setting.


The biggest worry regarding safety targets lies in how they are then used. A large number of companies declare safety to be one of their main concerns and therefore they see the safety score as one of the indicators for an annual bonus. At first glance this seems logical, but it definitely is not. By making a connection between safety performance and a bonus, we demonstrate that safe behavior is expressed to please the boss. That’s the world upside down. Safe behavior stems from respect for life, for each other and for our environment. By linking financial reward with safe behavior, we mess up a fundamental value of life.

Crowding out

This coupling of money with safety is also counterproductive. This has been convincingly demonstrated by research into motivation for becoming a blood donor. Countries which wanted to encourage blood donation by paying for each bag of blood, have experienced that this financial incentive actually decreased the number of volunteers. As a blood donor, we give blood to support our community and we expect to receive blood ourselves whenever we need it. A financial reward for each bag of blood changes that implicit psychological rule. Suddenly a blood donation is no longer for the good of others, but for personal benefit. Practice has shown that starting a financial reward system leads to a decline in the number of blood donors. This phenomenon is called crowding out.

Positive conditions

The core of this post deals with the question of how we can use target setting in a positive way. A good safety target respects the underlying values ​​and focuses on what we need to do to achieve it. By far the most sensible approach is therefore to pay due attention to the presence of conditions that help us to work safely. We can assess whether workers wear proper protective equipment and whether attention is paid to safety instructions during the induction. We can check whether we carry out a risk assessment before we start working and whether we discuss what steps we shall take should a certain risk appear. These indicators provide good feedback for the prime concern of safety. They refer to policies and, unlike incidents, are less sensitive to coincidence.


We believe safety is important for both each other and ourselves. This awareness creates the energy to go forward. A mix of a positive orientation, fair standards and sincere intentions creates success as long as we leave money out of the game. It makes sense to set our targets and our measurement system on what we actually can contribute. This is also the area most susceptible to influence by management. If we together embrace these concerns, we can arrive at home safely.

About the Author

Jan DaalmansJuni Daalmans is author of Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations and works for the Daalmans Organizational Development Office. Save 30% on your very own copy of Juni’s book. Just enter “SAVE3013” at checkout.

He regularly posts to his blog Brain Based Safety and can be found on twitter @BrainBasedSafet.

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