Brain Based Safety


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What is Brain Based Safety?

Brain Based Safety focuses on increasing the safety of organizations by stimulating safe behavior. The philosophy is based on recent knowledge of the brain. Brain Based Safety explains how safe and unsafe behavior emerges. Behavior has three sources: innate, learned, and activated by environmental stimuli.


Innate behavior means that we have a genetic fear system at birth. This fear is focused on objects or events. Consider, for example, the fear of snakes or large insects. This fear makes us more cautious. We also have an innate sense of how much risk we can handle.

However, the world has changed a lot in a short time. In the Western world we hardly encounter snakes, but we almost daily interact with powerful machines and hazardous substances. The second source of safe behavior is everything we have learned about these modern risks. We also learn how we should deal with these risks if they occur. This risk awareness should be a key element in the induction of employees in new positions.

Environmental stimuli are the third source of behavior. We are sensitive to what is happening around us. The stimuli we see or hear, have an impact on which programs are activated in our brain and how powerfully this happens. The way we organize our work and our workplace therefore has a major influence on our behavior.

Brain Based Safety uses each of these three sources for better understanding human behavior and providing ideas to make the world a safer place.

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First understand, then influence

Behavior sometimes seems strange and unpredictable. Why is an employee willing to do something in his boss’s time that could injure or even kill him, when there is only a marginal profit to be gained? We often do not understand this kind of behavior, but with the right frame of reference a lot of things make sense.


For example, why are there so many people with fractures and bruises at the GP post on a Saturday afternoon? In a small country like the Netherlands, every Saturday, up to 50 handymen fall from a stepladder at home in such a way that they need medical attention. How is that possible? First of all, no one thinks the use of a stepladder is dangerous. We are familiar with it and no longer see the risk. We call this risk-underestimation. Besides that, everyone thinks he’s the king of the stepladder. Tricks are performed on top of such a ladder. People think they can still reach a far corner and bend very far forward. We call this self-overestimation. In addition, everyone wants to work efficiently. Moving the stepladder a bit takes only ten seconds and yet we often don’t do it. When painting the outermost corner of the wall, we lose balance, resulting in a fall. Risk-underestimation, self-overestimation and a strong efficiency-drive are already three causes of unsafe behavior.

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Unconscious processes

After an accident at work, it is often said “he was not paying attention” or “he should have followed the rules”. A yellow card is given out and the rules are explained one more time. “Not paying attention” is a simple statement that doesn’t help us any further.


In the example of the stepladder, it helps to investigate how risk underestimation and self-overestimation arise. How does efficiency beat safety? All these processes take place unconsciously in our brain. We don’t notice them. Even when we lie on the floor in a puddle of paint with a broken wrist, we still don’t understand what went wrong in our mind. Safety management starts with understanding and influencing those unconscious processes of the brain.

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Brain Based Safety has mapped a number of these unconscious processes. Sometimes they don’t seem logical at all. They are actually twists of our mind. Those twists have long ago been very meaningful, but in this changing world we can suffer from them. If we know where those twists come from, we can tackle them and sometimes even use them for our own benefit.


Brain Based Safety has discovered how to influence those twists, in other words, where the unconscious buttons of our behavior are. If you turn those buttons in the right direction, desired behavior will arise. This increases the chance that everyone will behave more safely. Brain Based Safety has condensed this knowledge in books, training courses and other instruments. Together we can make the world a little safer and let everyone come home healthy.

Now just hope someone is holding the stepladder!

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Brain Based Safety focuses on safe behavior, uses what is innate, stimulates risk awareness and helps design an environment that activates safe behavior.

It explains our sometimes difficult to understand willingness to take risks and explains the principles behind it. It describes the unconscious twists and turns of our mind and how we can make use of them to live a safe and healthy life.

The essence of Brain Based Safety in 21 assumptions:

  1. If we want to strengthen safety management of organizations, we must mainly focus on influencing human behavior. In other words, individual behavior is the cornerstone of safety management.
  2. All behavior arises from the brain. Behavior is usually unconscious and is generated by our automated pilot.
  3. The automated pilot also takes care of observation and risk awareness. Both are the result of a learning process. Everyone has a personal learning process. Understanding each other is therefore not self-evident. The longer we live and work together, the more perception and risk awareness grow towards each other.
  4. Learning is much easier than unlearning. Learning can take place on command, while unlearning can only take place by obsolescence of that particular behavior. Good induction is much more efficient than retraining later.
  5. Our drives guard our safety; otherwise we would not be here. They also strive for a balance between our needs. When time, money and goods are scarce, conflicts between the various drivers can disrupt our safety. Most safety violations are committed unconsciously and have a positive intention: achieving goals. We are naturally willing to sacrifice some of our own safety for the success of work.
  6. Behavior does not arise from a uniform source (the so-called “will”) but arises from a combination of various motives that want to use opportunities or ward off threats from the environment. Behavior is therefore changeable and situationally determined.
  7. If we have several equal options at our disposal, the circumstances determine which option we choose. If we manage the circumstances to the extreme, we can eventually make anyone exhibit any behavior.
  8. Automated patterns are much stronger than insights. Unfortunately, a good idea (or a rule) does not automatically lead to the appropriate behavior. It is difficult to change existing behavior, even if we know it is not safe. Changing behavior needs practice and feedback.
  9. Safe behavior emerges naturally when we have an awareness of risks. This awareness provides an internal motivation / drive for safe behavior.
  10. In addition to risk awareness, we also need the skills to deal with these risks. This is only possible if we have the correct motor patterns (learned behavioral repertoire) which are stored in our automated pilot. Using a patterns is very efficient and fast and therefore usually wins from a conscious act.
  11. Linking fear to situations or actions is most easily done via social relationships. Learning from each other (model learning) is the strongest mechanism in teaching / transferring safe behavior.
  12. Understanding of risks (awareness of risks in planned actions) stems from a neural system that is active around the clock. This so called “rest-system” does its job better if it is given time. Rest moments between instruction and execution help to better understand the risks of a task and to perform in a better way. The best ideas arise during breaks or leisure time.
  13. The conscious is only switched on when the unconscious has no standard answer to a challenge from the environment or when it does not know how to satisfy an instinctual need.
  14. The conscious is creative, but it can only do one thing at a time. It can only monotask. The unconscious can multitask and perform many tasks at the same time (driving a car, listening to the radio, comb the hair and eat a candy). However, the more tasks we do simultaneously, the lower the quality and safety of the behavior. During multitasking, each brain area needs to divide its activity for more purposes. This creates coordination problems in both the motoric and the sensoric areas. Due to that, we also receive less feedback, which makes learning/adjusting behavior more difficult.
  15. Unfortunately, also the conscious can disrupt automated unconscious processes (for example calling while driving), causing the quality / safety of our behavior to deteriorate.
  16. Humans by nature are risk tolerant and get used to any danger in case of regular exposure. This so-called habituation leads to a decrease of the fear-response. In a world in which new and heavier dangers arise, this is becoming an increasing problem.
  17. By default, we are too positive about our safety performance and therefore observe fewer safety margins than would be good for us. We are too self-confident when it comes to safety.
  18. Stress is an increased state of alertness and helps us to function well during moments of high external demands. However, too much stress is dangerous. Under high stress, we see less and act rashly. Too little stress (comfort zone) is also dangerous.
  19. Only enforce rules if it is clear which risks are reduced by working according to these rules. Always link rules to risk perception. Train people in following the rule and be sharp on non-compliance. Be open to discuss and possibly change rules if there are better options.
  20. Model learning is learning from each other. Management and the informal leaders are our main models. Model behavior is a powerful influencer of behavior and the most leading indicator of a safe organisation.
  21. We like to be part of the team and are willing to make concessions for this. An unsafe team can tempt us to act unsafely.
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