When it comes to occupational safety, in this article Andrew Sharman and Darren Sutton address what is potentially the ultimate in behavioural safety challenges: protecting workers from Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome.

Both authors were fortunate enough to enjoy some time in warmer climates over the winter period. Andrew headed south first to reacquaint himself with his shark mates in South Africa, and Darren later found himself on Australia’s Gold Coast, the home of Surfers’ Paradise!

Now, surfers and divers are both quite interesting groups of people to observe, since they’re in their own unique subcultures. They behave very differently to the rest of us – instantly evident if you’ve ever watched the way they walk, talk and even how they look. They have their own habits and rituals that seems to come automatically as soon as they get into surf or dive mode.

Upon watching a particularly experienced surfer enter the energetic crystal blue waters, Darren couldn’t help but recall the famous 1966 hit Beach Boys song, Good Vibrations. For those of us of a certain age the song has of course become synonymous with our stereotype of Californian surfing and surf culture in the 1960s.

The song generates positive images; it’s just one of those ‘feel good’ tunes. The truth is, however, that not all vibrations are created equal! Some – Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome being no exception – can be seriously damaging to our bodies and impact negatively on our overall quality of life.

HAVS: The ultimate challenge?

We’ve encountered a whole host of behavioural challenges in our time, and each have their own unique set of circumstances and idiosyncrasies. In our experience, when it comes to complex technical aspects of safety – particularly when specialised equipment is involved – influencing behaviour in this area of safety performance is amongst the most difficult to do effectively. As you’d expect, there are a number of reasons for this.

Awareness and PPE

Our first challenge could well be a genuine lack of awareness, even with specialists who regularly work with power tools. Whilst we might assume that the vast majority of workers who operate vibrating tools will be well aware of the potential hazards, and in turn how to protect against them, but that’s not always the case. Even if they’re aware of Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome as a condition, they may be much less aware of how it takes effect and the kind of long term damage it can cause.

In fact, Darren recalls back to when he was studying for a NEBOSH Diploma many years ago and was first made aware of HAVS. As safety professionals we must accept that there may well be people out there with a genuine lack of awareness of the dangers that they are being exposed to whilst using power tools. They’ll be unaware, for example, that even using the correct protective gloves is only part of the battle – since merely wearing any safety gloves can lull workers into the false sense of security that they are protected.

The UK’s HSE even warns that: “[antivibration gloves] are not particularly effective at reducing the frequencyweighted vibration associated with risk of HAVS and they can increase the vibration at some frequencies.” Meaning that yet again more knowledge is needed – as simply using any old anti-vibration glove as a one size fits all will only set you up for failure. Well, that and HAVS.

“it is of paramount importance that gloves are well fitting to avoid nasty accidents such as entanglement in machinery”

So too with this lack of awareness, they may also be surprised to learn that rather than dashing straight for specialised antivibration gloves, it is often in fact just keeping hands warm, as part of a wider programme of mitigation, that does the best job in protecting workers hands.

As is always the case with gloves, it is of paramount importance that they are well fitting to avoid nasty accidents such as entanglement in machinery, and other occupational mishaps that may occur from having poor dexterity.

This lack of understanding can lead to knowledge-based mistakes (rather than violations or slips and lapses that we have referred to in our previous articles) that can have alarming consequences.

Taking the perspective of the individual worker, however, is only part of the challenge. When addressing any type of behavioural issue, we must also consider the underlying culture, environmental and leadership factors that will be present. They may well be very different for each presenting situation, as sometimes the operative will be part of a large project surrounded by their colleagues, supervisors and site managers or, alternatively, they may well be operating totally independently with seemingly fewer outside influences on their behaviour. So, let’s look at each in turn now.


Culture is often described as “the way we do things around here”. It is, of course, actually a little bit more complex than that, but for the purposes of this article let’s keep things simple. Organisational culture plays a huge part in influencing behaviour – even for those that operate totally autonomously with nobody else in sight.

Think for a moment about how you might eat a packet of potato crisps or some peanuts. When we’re on our own we may eat them quite differently compared to how we might eat them if we are in an office full of people or in a meeting with clients. This may change again if we are in the cinema or theatre, and we might not eat them at all in or even close to a place of worship or of important historical interest.

These factors will also come in to play in our working environment and we might behave very differently depending on where we are working, which area of the world we are in, and even who our client might be. In our consulting firm we are very well aware of this. Just this week Andrew was working with the top executive of a multinational chemicals company and wore a formal suit, shirt and tie combination to fit in with their culture in the boardroom, then two days later was lounging on colourful beanbags wearing jeans, sweater and running shoes with the leadership team of the world’s coolest tech brand. ‘The way we do things around here’ certainly influences behaviour more than we might at first notice. Imagine the difference in turning up to the chemical company in jeans and running shoes, or to the tech company in a suit and tie!

Other cultural factors would also include the company we work for and what we perceive is expected of us, as well as linear issues such as how we learnt to do this task and even who might have taught us.


Next, we must consider the leadership question. On a large site, we can expect some sort of ‘chain of command’ to be in place. The quality and structure of this chain and the leaders within it will have a significant impact on the behaviours on that site. When it comes to our HAVS issue we could have another level of our lack of awareness problem in that the supervisor or leaders might not necessarily have had operational experience in using power tools. As such, they will be much less likely to have the kind of detailed knowledge required to properly protect their workforce in this area.

Aside from the more obvious leadership behaviours that we would expect on our sites such as leading by example, creating a culture of excellence in all areas of performance and ensuring that people have the correct equipment and knowledge to carry out their jobs, the leaders and supervisors will also be responsible for the observation of and appropriate reinforcement of critical behaviours.


Finally let’s think about the work environment. As we’ve discussed above, culture and leadership play important parts in terms of influence on behaviour. So too does the actual workplace.

Here it’s worth considering the equipment choices available to workers, the maintenance regimes, and the inspection and test frequencies, to ensure that the tools and equipment are safe to use. The provision of information, instruction and training is equally important, and appropriate supervision may be necessary, too.

Don’t forget about the availability of tools and equipment. We’ve found organisations who have well-developed systems to manage all of the above aspects, but then fall short by not providing sufficient stock of the tools and equipment needed for the workplace.

These are all things that you might consider including in your workplace inspections, or indeed within your Behaviour Based Safety (BBS) observations or Safety Walks.

Leadership, culture and environment

As discussed in our previous articles, all behaviours are driven by the specific antecedents that precede a behaviour and the perceived consequences that might follow the behaviour. This is known as the ‘ABC model’. We’ll take a look at how we might be able to improve on our antecedents soon, but first let’s identify how the consequences might apply to HAVS on some sites.


There are four primary consequences of behaviour: punishment, praise, reward, and turning a blind eye. Let’s look at how they might play out in a particular scenario with regard to HAVS.


In the case of operating power tools leading to a consequence of sustaining HAVS, the worker is unlikely to be killed or suffer an immediate serious injury, so there won’t be any immediate hospitalisation to consider, and the likelihood of being disciplined or prosecuted for doing things the wrong way is extremely unlikely. These are bad things, sure, but these punishments only might happen to the individual carrying out the behaviour. Punishment in this case isn’t a strong consequence.


This consequence is far more likely in this scenario. If the worker gets the job done quickly the leader or client might well praise them for this, without realising the safety short-cuts that might have been taken. Positive reinforcement like this makes repeating a certain behaviour more likely.


If a worker is paid or rewarded in some way once the work is completed, there may be financial penalties if the task is not completed on time. When people are set targets or deadlines and incentivised to achieve them, they’ll likely do just about anything they can to ensure that they hit that target and receive the reward. This strong consequence can be 30 ARTICLE | Breathing Apparatus immensely powerful, but it carries the risk of encouraging unwanted behaviours, or even employees working only when they know they’ll be rewarded.

Turning a ‘blind eye’

We’ve heard of many occasions where a supervisor or team leader looks the other way. It could be easy to think that this is not actually a strict consequence, but it’s actually a very strong reinforcer of the behaviour that’s observed and then ignored. As a result of a supervisor ‘turning a blind eye’ the worker may continue to work in a certain way and increase their risk of HAVS.

So here we have a “Perfect Storm” for the reinforcement of unsafe behaviour. For not following the correct procedures such as using the appropriate equipment or adhering to safe time exposures whilst using power tools, the consequences are lined up in the favour of the worker and they perceive that nothing bad will happen to them – in the short term, at least.

The positives – getting the job done quickly and receiving reward – may also appear to far outweigh any negatives, and in the eyes of the worker are much more likely to happen in the short term. Any negatives, e.g. punishment, that might happen could be well into the future and perceived as much less likely to happen.

Extending the idea of consequence management, it’s important to understand the role of timeliness and likelihood when trying to influence any kind of behaviour.

Immediate certainties

Immediacy and likelihood (or certainty) are critical elements of any behavioural change initiative, and it’s here that we can start to understand exactly why the safe use of power tools and vibrating equipment can be challenging. The consequences of any behaviour can be categorised and graded for their efficacy and we call the most effective conditions either PICs or NICs.

A PIC is a consequence that is positive to the individual carrying out the behaviour, it happens pretty much immediately and it is absolutely certain that it will happen. And yes, you guessed right: a NIC is the same except in that it’s negative to the individual, in other words something bad is going to happen to them, it’s definitely going to happen and pretty much immediately.

Let’s think about some wider issues first and identify where the PICs and NICs are.

So it’s no surprise that people just don’t want to contribute to pension schemes anymore. Contributing to the scheme provides a pretty powerful NIC to the individual each month! Of course, there is a positive to contributing to a pension scheme, but there’s definitely no immediacy to the pay-out.

The positives for taking out a savings scheme is not a PIC at all, It’s just a PFU and that’s not a very effective influence of behaviour. Furthermore, if we choose not to take up a scheme, we will have more money in our pockets right now, it’s certain and that’s also a positive to the individual. Now, let’s quickly see how this works for operating our power tools.

So, there’s a negative here for our unsafe behaviour but it’s not an NIC, it’s just an NFU! Let’s see how it works when we do the right thing and we behave safely.

For doing things properly and safely we actually have a pretty powerful NIC consequence that will encourage some people to not operate safely.

Changing the game

The consequences are not helping us at all here. Even with the very best leadership, environmental and cultural factors, we have a behaviour here that is not so easy to influence. Especially with regard to the time exposure aspect to HAVS that is so important.

Very often, despite all that is espoused about how important the consequences are, surprisingly, our best course of action can be to ensure that we have the very best antecedents that may be available to us and even use some innovative principles of behavioural science to boost things.

Our “traditional” antecedents such as meaningful training, the right equipment and monitoring platforms and educating people, including those in the leadership chain, exactly why this issue is so important rather than simply what they should do.

How can surfers help?

Darren couldn’t help but notice that most of the surfers had surrounded themselves with logos, memes, phrases and little reminders of their identity. Little reminders of who they are or who they want to be associated with. Now, our identity drives behaviour. If you identify as or want to be associated with someone who, for example, drives a Mercedes Benz or uses Apple tech products, then the likelihood is that you will at least try to do the same.

Those surfers had images plastered everywhere of their surfing heroes: in their cars, on their surfboards, on their bags – some had even painted these themselves. There were also certain cool phrases and particular brands that they identified with, too.

As Darren was contemplating these antecedents for the surfers’ behaviours he heard the ringtone on a phone go off whilst a surfer was preparing his kit. It was a song playing quite loudly and his friend next to him even laughed out loud at it. Can you guess what the song was? I bet you guessed right: The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’.