Observational Learning Remains Relevant for Safety

“I learned it from watching you.” Does anyone remember that line from the 1987 anti-drug PSA? The commercial is a little dated, but the concept is sound. People really do learn from those around them. It’s a concept called vicarious or observational learning, defined as learning that happens indirectly through observation rather than through direct, hands-on instruction. Humans are naturally conditioned to learn this way; for most of our collective history, we watched our fellow tribesmen to learn which behaviors brought reward and which brought punishment.

Unsurprisingly, we have not changed much as we moved into the modern world. Any parent can tell you that their children don’t buy the “do as I say, not as I do” argument. They learn the behaviors modeled around them. It’s the same in the workplace. You can assign training courses, hang posters, and talk about safety until you’re blue in the face. But if your workers aren’t reinforcing each other with the right behaviors, it’s not going to stick.

Observational learning does not replace hands-on instruction or a more formal system of training (eLearning, instructor-led, or blended) for job tasks, regulations, or good practices. Those are and should be the gold standard for ensuring your people know how to keep safe. But here’s where the idea of a “culture of safety” comes into play. Research has shown, for instance, that new hires are likely to use PPE at a rate proportional to collective PPE use among peers. If your people are making unsafe choices and getting away with it or—even worse—getting rewarded for it, you have a created a culture where employees are learning the wrong things from each other. Conversely, creating a culture where employees receive good training on the fundamentals, make the right choices, and receive positive feedback will set up a virtuous cycle for safety.

It’s human nature to observe and evolve. Make sure your workers are reinforcing each other in a positive way.