Bridging the “Behavioural Gap” in safety-critical work

Maria Matthews provides an update on the knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) between Leeds Beckett University and VolkerRail Ltd., a specialist railway infrastructure services company working throughout the UK.

There are a number of factors that influence safety-related behaviours:

  • Beliefs and perceptions: Our attitudes, beliefs and intentions; what we believe we may gain or lose from performing a given behaviour.
  • Individual differences: Our personality, preferences and coping mechanisms; non-technical skills and technical abilities; also our current state of well-being, stress, fatigue and mood.
  • Environmental factors: The social and physical environment around us; relationships and the support we receive; opportunities to perform the desired behaviour; its convenience and availability.

Fortunately, over recent years accidents in the workplace have decreased. This is largely due to legislation which has led to improved safeguarding practices, with industries taking a “systems” approach to safety, ensuring that the environment, operator conditions and the overall work system promote a safe working environment, particularly in safety critical industries such as rail work.

However, despite an overall decline in work place accidents since the 1990s, non-fatal accidents remain a common occurrence and have remained roughly at a similar level over the last few years.

The rail industry often describes this as an “accident plateau”, a point at which traditional health and safety assurances have exhausted their value and further reduction of work-related accidents would require the manipulation of individual psychological and behavioural factors.

The problem with many behaviour based approaches is that we naturally make assumptions about the problems, the target behaviours and the causes of behaviours. We then try to solve problems with solutions that sound like “a good idea”.

But more often than not, that does not lead to success or innovation. It may seem a good idea to send out detailed information about safety breaches to relevant staff, and requiring recipients to acknowledge they have read it. This shifts responsibility to the recipients of such messages. However, over time it creates an overload and the recipient who may benefit from new insights does not really take note anymore, clicking some “I HAVE READ THIS” button automatically – much like we scroll through and agree to online Terms and Conditions without reading the details.

A new approach

This KTP project proposes a different approach – less based on what seems “a good idea” and more based on research and evidence. The areas I have researched into so far are safety communication, incident reporting, sub-optimal human factors, well-being, coping and resilience. I have used:

  • Psychological research methods to collect and analyse qualitative and quantitative bottom-up data.
  • Exploration of the relationships between psychological factors perceived to heighten accident risk.
  • Data driven design and implementation of interventions to tackle risk. Tailored and user-centered.
  • Detailed evaluation of the effectiveness of interventions

To measure the various factors influencing behaviour, a questionnaire was designed to cover:

  • Well-being and stress
  • Attitudes and behaviours regarding reporting incidents
  • Production pressure
  • Safety motivation, compliance and participation
  • Role specifics

This was rolled out to safety-critical staff, site-based staff and staff involved in the planning of safety-critical work. To maximise participation in the survey, I used branding and marketing specific to the target demographic, made many face to face visits and used the available media channels within the company.

Initial data collection is now complete and data is being analysed. The findings so far indicate that VolkerRail as a group is performing well across most measurements. We are however finding some interesting relationships which we are exploring.

Next steps

I have to do further data analysis before reliable results are available. There will also be qualitative data gathering from sub-groups to further explore relationships identified by the quantitative questionnaire data.


Funded by Innovate UK, KTP grants support companies who promote highly innovative projects that exchange and apply knowledge, skills and/or technology to accelerate sustainable economic growth.

Maria’s academic KTP supervisors are Dr Jim Morgan, School of Social Sciences, and Dr Marc Fabri, School of Computing, Creative Technologies and Engineering.