The Neuroscience of Safety Habits

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.” Said another way

A habit is the recurring, often unconscious and automatic patterns of thought, behavior, or feelings that are acquired through frequent repetition.


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.) 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 neuro connections become so strong, you don’t have to even think about it. Your body as the unconscious mind can drive the car all while have a rousing conversation with your passenger. It becomes 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 un-fire 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.

With an understanding of how employees develop unconscious and hard-wired habits, you can provide them with the compassion, framework and the 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!

Click here for the full article and to learn the 8 Hacks for making safety habits easier to change.

Theo Heineman, CRSP, CHSC, B.Sc.Ag., Founder and CEO of 1Life Workplace Safety Solutions is certified NeuroChangeSolutions consultant and certified trainer in the science and practice of heart coherence by the HeartMath Institute.