The Disturbing World of Fallacious Conclusions and Specious Arguments

Almost a month ago I was engaged in a spirited and contentious debate, again about the supposed merits of Behavior Based Safety.  Once again I was shouted down on line for having the unmitigated audacity to question the long-term impact of Behavior Based Safety.  It started when I made the admittedly blunt assertion that the contention that “people either choose to work safe or unsafe” is an unsupportable position. I thought the statement was clear, concise, and accurate. I certainly wasn’t trying to cultivate controversy.

Almost immediately the forum filled with people who questioned my experience, knowledge of safety and credibility.  After all, who was I to call the emperor naked? Millions have been made on systems that seek to make the workplace safer using basic, Skinner-based behaviorism.  How dare I question all of that?

Behavior-Based Safety proponents point to a study conducted by the National Safety Council that found that 90% of all worker injuries were caused by unsafe behaviors.  Most safety professionals hold this study sacred; it makes sense.  We’ve all seen instances where worker injuries and even tragedies could have been easily prevented had workers just acted with more care, professionalism, or plain common sense.  Even though this study is over 30 years old and to my knowledge never been independently confirmed in the safety community to question it is to commit the worst kind of blasphemy (Some of the more staunch allies will point to Heidrich’s Injury pyramid that also found (over 70 years ago) that a high percentage of injuries are caused by unsafe acts).  But I don’t question these findings.  I believe that 100% of all injuries have some behavioral causation, in so much as if no one is doing something than no one is likely to get injured.

My point is who cares? I don’t want to quibble with statistics, my point is, okay, so now what? BBS providers seem to have had this “aha” moment that holds that since behavior played a role we now have the magic bullet to prevent all injuries because all we need to do is remind people to be more careful or motivate them to be more safe, or use basic behavior modification to “fix” people. Many BBS theorists never asked “why” the people behaved the way they did. And without Root Cause Analysis to understand not only why they behaved the way they did, but also why they believed what they were doing was safe.

The crux of my view of safety is this: nobody wants to get hurt and you system wasn’t supposed to hurt them se we had ought to fix the problem not the blame. Recent, well-documented repeatable studies on how the brain works indicate that human error is an inevitable (and in an evolutionary sense desirable) human characteristic. So we can only train people to work safely to an extent, and we MUST be more proactive, which allows us to apply controls that are higher and more effective on the Hierarchy of Controls.

In most cases, I believe that too much emphasis is placed on individual behaviors and not enough on organizational behaviors, in other words too many people worry about modifying individual behaviors (while ignoring human error research, Maslow’s work, Fredrick Taylor’s work, Edward Deming’s work, the entire fields of organizational psychology, neurology, anthropology, and more) at the expense of modifying systemic issues that cause people to make bad decisions that ultimately get them hurt.

Safety is a qualitative measurement that most companies treat as a quantitative measurement. If company A has less injuries than company B it does not necessarily follow that company A is a safer place to work because as you point out there is an element of luck. Certainly there is a correlation between risk and injuries, but safety is a relative term used to describe risk. And as long as we view safety as a body-count things will continue to erode.

Safety is the probability of a worker doing his or her job without getting hurt. There needs to be a paradigm shift within the safety community.  At the foundation of this paradigm shift is the question of exactly how do we calculate risk. I’ve been working on an answer to that question for sometime and still don’t have a formula I’m happy with, but in broad strokes, I believe that the more hazards you have the more likely you are to injure workers. But there are other factors at play that raise the overall risk of injuries in the workplace.  Factors that directly influence the likelihood that people will make poor choices: ineffective communication practices, weak incident investigation, high amounts of nonstandard work, processes that aren’t in control, production bottlenecks, unstable work levels (layoffs/hiring), etc. The presence of these factors increase risk of injuries and safety can only be increased if we identify and manage these risk factors. Yes, behaviors play a key role in risk and should be managed, but not necessarily through behavior modification.

Millions are spent on Behavior Based Safety where the goal is to reward people for working safely, and yet most decisions made regarding safety are made in a reactive microsecond where there isn’t really time to make a conscious decision as to how the best and safest way to respond. Even in cases of mechanical failure, the true fault can often be traced back to a behavior: poor maintenance, poor inspection process, improper installation, etc.” I agree. But generally speaking, BBS has been bastardized to the point where organizations are only looking at behavior at the production level. They do a shoddy job of root cause analysis and if they do go far enough up the decision tree they far too often cop out without addressing the organizational system flaw that provides the “why” behind the behavior.

As I have said, all injuries are caused by behaviors if we look hard enough. But there is a huge leap to the conclusion that we can therefore use behavior modification to prevent all injuries. The debate between process solutions and behavior modification is pointless. We need to take a more holistic view of safety and focus both on improving processes, providing good training in how to correctly do a job (I’m talking core skills training not safety training—a welder who understands how to weld is infinitely less likely to injure himself or others than someone who has been given 40 hours of safety training but can’t weld.), reduce nonstandard work, and yes provide feedback on behavior.

Ergonomics, fork-truck accidents and lockout violations cost industry $100s of millions. And yes, there are significant behavioral elements to each of these but telling drivers to be more careful is like telling me to be taller. I’d like to be, but having my supervisor observe me won’t change anything for long. Do you ever speed? If you see a policeman do you slow down? do you resume speeding? This is because enforcement changes the climate of safety but does little to change the culture.

I was recently asked “why don’t we start to dissolve the artificial distinctions between protection and production in favor of effective total performance. (sic)” Why? because there are a LOT of people whose livelihoods depend on one methodology at the exclusion of all others. We can’t put all our proverbial eggs in one basket. We need to balance the need to protect workers against the need to produce at a competitive rate. But the first step in doing so is to recognize the quantitative “safety” does not exist, and that only by viewing safety as a comparative, qualitative measurement can we ever hope to recognize the apparent dichotomy between safe and productive. If we view both these terms as qualitative in nature we can begin to see them as supportive of one another, look at correlations between improved safety and improved productivity, quality, cost, and morale.

Behavior management has a place in any good safety program, but it needs to be counter-balanced by mistake proofing (which really isn’t about not making mistakes but in most cases its about ensuring that mistakes don’t kill anyone.

BBS alone will always fail because it ignores the fact that people don’t WANT to get hurt or always CONSCIOUSLY make bad decisions that lead to injuries. A fair amount of unsafe behavior is not a conscious decision so trying to modify it by rewarding a “good” decision is pointless.  Process based safety alone will always fail because…well you can’t bubble wrap the world.


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