Brain Based Safety


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We have known that behavior is an important factor in safety management since Heinrich published this in 1932. However, it is difficult for us to get a grip on employee’s behavior. Partly because of this, we yearly have 80 labor fatalities and 1600 serious incidents. Despite a lot of effort, this number will not drop. The question is whether we really the topic understand of safe behavior. For example, we often assume that people always put their own safety first. Brain Based Safety questions this assumption. It gives another explanation why people, in their boss’s time, take risks that can injure or even kill them, when the gain from these risks is only minimal. This behavior seems illogical until you view it from a different perspective.

Three sources of behavior

To explain this, first of all the question of how behavior comes about. We can distinguish three sources here: innate, acquired and turned on.

Innate behavior: drives

DNA is passed on from parent to child. DNA contains a building plan of our brain, the origin of all behavior. The basic behavioral programs are our drives. The purpose of these drives is to preserve the human species. Apparently, that works well. The DAN found in ancient human remains from 20,000 years ago, tells us that it changes only very slowly during the ages. The structure and functioning of our current brain are probably identical to that of the prehistoric brain.


However, the world is changing rapidly. In these changed circumstances there are new dangers that are also much more powerful. The basis settings of our drives are not adjusted to that. Due to that, our innate behavioral settings have different consequences in this changed world. Behaviors that were once meant to survive are now getting us into trouble. We call this a bias. We have a series of these biases and together they can explain some of our current problems with safe behavior.

Learned behavior: suppressing drives

We have tried to suppress these biases by restricting behavior through rules. This helps to some extent. The big problem is that this also reduces the original power contained in a drive. Take for instance the desire to solve something quickly at work. This energy is blocked by rules (management of change procedure) and is therefore looking for a different way out. That’s the reason why employees sometimes tend to behave in an unplanned and uncontrolled way. It is precisely this loss of grip that we see as an important cause of unsafe behavior.

Learned behavior: develop a competence

The question is how we can obtain different behavior without suppressing drives. How we can make the step from symptom control to competence. In doing so, we respect the power that is behind the motive, but try to steer it in the right direction.

An example: drive “take care of the tribe”

From a survival perspective, the motivation to “take care for the tribe” is an important one. 20,000 years ago we lived as a tribal community. The tribe was effective in hunting and defense against rival tribes. You could run away as an individual during a threat. But being alone on the savannah, your chances of survival decreased. Besides that, the tribe also weakened to your departure. That is why man puts the tribe first and is willing to fight together. Personal safety is ranked lower. The drive says: “tribe first” and “safety second”.

The world now: from tribe to organization

We no longer live in tribes, but in organizations. We still have a willingness to stand up for the sake of the cause and we are inclined to take a risk if we think it is needed. However, the dangers associated with today’s risks are out of proportion to the potential profit for the organization. A good drive has thus evolved into a bias.

Rules and punishment

Our main solution for risk-taking is introducing rules and penalizing violations. We forget that risks are often taken out of commitment. This often evokes an aggrieved feeling. “Why am I being punished? I took this risk for the sake of the organization and also others expressed that behavior previously.”

What does a competence look like?

A competence is a combination of knowledge, skills and experience. Knowledge starts with learning to understand risky behavior, what drives us. We need to understand that an incident can be the result of inadequate commitment. Developing a competence means exploring ways in which commitment can be maintained, without the nasty side effects of the biases. What other options do we have, how can we operate safely and still solve this problem? Experience arises by converting positive intentions into behavior. Mutual feedback is an important corrective factor in handling risks.


Such a process takes time and attention, but ultimately always outweighs the failure costs. Moreover, this gives you more control over the process and increases the chances that everyone will return home safely. The Brain Based Safety philosophy tries to preserve the original life energy of our behavior and to guide it into safe channels. By doing this we vreate grip on behavior.


Juni Daalmans

Brain Based Safety

February 2021

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