By Phil La Duke
A reader asked me to write yet another blog about how I feel about Behavior Based Safety (BBS). I was reluctant at first—my writings about BBS traditionally bring out the lunatics, but you can’t do what I do the way I do it without expecting flack from the crazies, the snake oil salesmen, or the fanatics—in my answer I got into such a froth that I decided to devote one more post. So how do I feel about BBS? Well, I feel just about the same way I do about chiropractic”medicine” which is to say that while it may (and I’m not sure it is) be appropriate in some very narrow applications in some very rare circumstances it is not only not a panacea it’s barely a solution. Furthermore, I think there are cheaper, better, more effective, and more sustainable ways to address workplace safety. In fact, I felt so strongly about it that I devoted TWO chapters of my book on the subject (My Problem With Pyramids, and This Kool-Aid Tastes Funny: My Ongoing Battle Against Behavior Based Safety (BBS)).
My opposition to BBS is well documented and fairly well known. My opposition to chiropractors is less so. If I have a sore back I might (after seeing my traditional physician and acting on his advice) consult a chiropractor, I might. You see like BBS I have seen too many people who worship both BBS and chiropractic treatments as nothing short of miraculous, but you chiropractor won’t cure your cancer and BBS won’t fix your safety. Just as your chiropractor will tell you that you have one leg longer than the other or that your chakra is misaligned and that you will require weekly treatments unless you want to die a twisted lump of flesh that makes the Elephant Man look like a Kenyan Olympic runner, BBS will tell you that you must adopt a bureaucratic clown car that you must always keep running or people will die.
BBS proponents are like a terrier with a rat in its mouth—it’s dead, drop it. Bear in mind that DuPont the inventor of one of the most popular BBS system has come under close scrutiny for its poor safety record, BST sold out to DEKRA but not before softening its rhetoric on BBS and moving toward leadership involvement as the key to safety, and even OSHA is now questioning the value of a system that could actively discourage the reporting of injuries.
So why is BBS still so popular? Simple, because it’s easy to implement, forces responsibility on to the front line workers, and well…reported injuries go down. So if you are a middle manager and your performance KPIs include safety you do your best to make sure that the injuries don’t get reported. If your BBS program includes safety incentives (rewards for a good safety record) people face ostracization if they get injured. I have stood in workplaces where an injured worker is taunted by other workers who tell them “you better not screw up our bonus” or the more subtle “you’ll get better care if you go to your own doctor.” Executives like BBS because many of them don’t know any better.
The best proof I can provide that BBS is just BS is that while the number of recordable injuries is steadily decreasing, the number of fatalities have been trending flat for eight years or so. This means one of two things are true, either people are less likely to report injuries and/or case managers are overzealously changing the status of recordable injuries to non-recordable injuries OR BBS works on minor injuries but does not prevent fatalities. Again this is like going to the chiropractor and have him tell you that while your chakra is starting to get in alignment you are going to die in a month because despite his insistence on a being called a doctor he doesn’t have a doctorate, or a license to practice medicine and you have cancer and will be deader than Darwin’s dog in a manner of weeks, oh and he’s gonna need his fee up front.
According to Brian Stenson in his post on the blog Process Map, for a BBS program to work, “A successful BBS program requires the following pieces working in unison:
Dedicated involvement from every employee (even the CEO); including contractors and sub-contractors makes the program even stronger
- A method for collecting and evaluating the data
- Mechanisms for instituting change to policies, procedures, and systems
- Leadership’s willingness to admit that there’s a better way and to start over.”
So let’s take these one at a time, shall we?
“Dedicated involvement from every employee (even the CEO); including contractors and sub-contractors makes the program even stronger” how exactly do you get such a ferocious and universal commitment to a program? And let’s remember here, this isn’t a bunch of people all pumped up after an inspiring speech from the CEO. No, this is everyday all day long. In my experience, the last time that happened was during Pol Pot’s reign of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was successful by killing anyone who disagreed with him (about 25% of his country’s population). Sure you can get people to fake dedicated involvement if you put them in constant fear of losing their jobs, but that flies in the face of Deming’s point to “drive fear out of the organization”. Color me skeptical but unless the organization has less than 10 employees I just don’t see this cult-like dedication to a safety program—any safety program.
“A method for collecting and analyzing data”. There’s nothing new here. EVERY management system has to have a method for collecting and analyzing data, and BBS is no different. It’s not in collecting data that I take issue, it’s in HOW data is collected. In BBS this is typically done by having one worker observe another working and offering advice to the worker on how he or she might do a job that they know 100 times betters how they might complete that job more safely. And while some workers take this advice to heart, the “Rat Squad” is usually reviled and hated. They are seen in the same way as the kid who reminds the teacher that he or she forgot to assign homework. If there were playgrounds at these workplaces the “Rat Squad” would be getting the snot knocked out of them on a regular basis. As the reader who suggested this blog said, “there is no training for observers when the worker tells him or her to @#$% off! but I guess that’s why we need cult-like devotion to BBS.
“Leadership’s willingness to admit that there’s a better way and to start over.” Again, a swell suggestion, but how many times are leaders willing to end a program in which they have spent a decade investing millions of dollars? In fact, this resistance to change is why BBS has such a stranglehold over some organizations. “We can’t start over we got too much invested in BBS.” It’s an absurd mindset, but its out there and it’s a LOT more prevalent that people want to believe and it’s working to defend BBS more than it is to attack it.
Stenson provides a truly beautiful infographic of BBS:
- Observe behavior. This is a part of every BBS program and the problem is that it presupposes that “85% of all injuries are caused by behaviors”. No shit? That’s one of those quasi-profound statements like “85% rain is wet” All injuries are caused by behavior if you go up the food chain far enough, and let’s face it no one gets hurt unless they are doing something. Why don’t we just say, “100% of worker injuries are caused by workers going to work?” BBS is full of witless, insipid, psychobabble which devotees gobble up like coyotes on a freshly killed cat. What’s dangerous is that at no time do most organization allow the observer to exercise stop work authority and in some shops, this kind of behavior constitutes “double supervision” (the practice that holds that a worker has one and only one boss) if you work in a Union shop you probably know this, and if you don’t I wouldn’t worry, it’s these kinds of behaviors that Union organizers dream about.
- Analyze the behavior. How many people in the workplace do you honestly expect to be able to analyze the behavior without arriving at the most facile conclusions? The easiest conclusion is that the worker was working unsafely and thus got hurt. Again this is an absurd statement that takes circular logic to new and bold heights. The behavior was absolutely unsafe because someone was injured. Few companies have a truly powerful and effective root cause analysis system that would get to the root of the behavior, and even those that do tend to ignore the fact that much (if not most) of our behavior is not the product of a conscious decision. And since there is nothing about containing the hazards associated with the behavior if someone dies, the company has documented evidence that it knew about the risk and if someone dies the CEO could well find him or herself in prison, hopefully with a convict whose mother died on the job as a cellmate.
- Generate a solution. The most common solution in BBS is likely to drive the behavior underground, which is great for improving your safety KPIs but does nothing (well accept increase it) for risk.
- Change behavior. How exactly? If we had a viable system for changing behavior on a large scale we would have no crime, no poverty, and no wars. Have the BBS drones figured out a solution and are just hoarding it to themselves? I think not. To be sure there are scads of snake oil salesmen who will convince you that you can do it with a series of incentives or by using their whiz-bang model of behavioral change, but there are too many variables in human behavior for any of them to work sustainably and with a population of more than three people.
- Evaluate to determine if the change is effective. The question here is is the change not only effective but is it TRULY effective or is it temporarily effective. It’s also worth asking whether or not the change is transferable, but seldom does anyone ask this.
So if BBS is so dim-witted why is it still around? Simple, many giant corporations spell out in their eligibility for a company to work as a vendor to them that they have to have a BBS program in place. Nobody asks if it’s effective, or if it’s even in use, and as long as this is in place you will have companies with the worst kind of ineffectual drivel in place that they call BBS, and the snake oil salesmen will continue to cash checks. So if you are a leader in your company you have to ask yourself if you want to stop killing your workers by building a viable and effective safety management system or do you want to get that fat contract and big bonus on the broken backs and corpses of employees. That’s what it comes down to.
Now let the wild yowling of the zealous jackals begin.