A Look At Behavior Based Safety

Last month I began a series of articles on the basics of safety.  In the second part of this series I explore some of the more popular approaches to safety—Phil La Duke

Behavior-Based Safety Versus Process-Based Safety

The widest gulf between safety philosophies lie between process-based safety and Behavior Based Safety.

Behavior-Based Safety or BBS as it is often called is an approach to worker safety based on behavioral science research, organizational behavior, and behavioral psychology.  In broad strokes, BBS is based on the idea that vast majority of injuries are caused by unsafe acts and the safety of the workplace can be significantly improved by activities aimed at reinforcing safe behaviors and raising the awareness of unsafe acts.

There are many different BBS systems and the popularity of the methodology has grown exponentially in recent years.  The system is particularly attractive among business owners and safety professionals that are frustrated by a pattern of injuries that could have been easily prevented had the injured parties simply exercised a modicum of care.  BBS systems seek to impart accountability for safety to workers while encouraging safe behavior through feedback and incentives.

While much recent research has been done supporting BBS systems many of the basic concepts are rooted in the work of early behavior  and industrial psychologists must notably Fredrick Taylor and Herbert Heinrich. In 1911, Fredrick Taylor published his seminal work, The Principles of Scientific Management.  Taylor advocated the use of the scientific method in managing workers to improve productivity. Because scientific management techniques promoted standardizing work around the optimization of jobs to the point where workers could be taught and managed against a single standard way of doing the job.  In 1926, Hebert Heinrich, while working at Travelers Insurance company, published “Incidental Cost of Accidents to the Employer” in this (and subsequent) works he concluded that the vast majority of injuries were caused by controllable unsafe actions.

The Behavior Based Safety philosophies grew from the belief that the best way to reduce injuries is to modify the behaviors most likely to cause injuries. There are numerous BBS methodologies and BBS practitioners don’t always agree on the optimum formula for affecting behavioral change there are typically commonalities between the major systems:

  • Promotion of Awareness.  A workplace that is heavily invested in BBS is likely to employ numerous visual tools designed to remind workers of the importance of working safely and to encourage workers to be mindful of the consequences for not working safe.  One especially popular promotion is the incorporation of posters drawn by the children of the workers underscoring the impact that a serious injury will have beyond the workplace.
  • Incentives.  BBS proponents believe that providing incentives for working safe plays an important part of any safety system.  Incentives for working safe can be simple financial bonuses for a specified period where no workers were injured to complex safety games and contests with elaborate prizes.
  • Safety Observations. In safety observations, an experienced worker—typically a supervisor or safety professional—watch a worker do his or her job after which the observer provides feedback on the safety with which the worker completed the job.  The point of observing the work being performed is to point out unsafe acts and offer tips for making the job safer.

Behavior Based Safety is not without critics.  Perhaps the harshest critics deride BBS for blaming the victim and contend that BBS is little more than a means of pitting workers against one another. These critics contend that because workers don’t want to get hurt penalizing them for getting hurt by withholding a bonus is adding, literally, insult to injury.

Many critics describe the techniques used to raise awareness as condescending, as one frustrated worker described it, “they give us a pizza party once a week if we don’t kill anyone.” The worker went on to complain that management acted as if the only reason workers were concerned about safety was the prospect of reward.

In some poorly executed BBS programs incentives were shown to decrease incident reporting rather than decreasing injuries.  The pressure to conceal job-related injures can be profound.  With coworkers facing the loss of everything from Safety BINGO game pieces to bonuses of $500 or more an injured worker has a very real incentive to conceal the injury; it is not unheard of for a worker to seek medical attention at his or her own expense to avoid a recordable because the cost of treatment is far less than amount forfeited in the loss of a bonus.

Still others will acknowledge the effectiveness of a BBS system, but argue that the cost of observations, data analysis, and the significant safety infrastructure needed to sustain the gains achieved by BBS are far more than is necessary or practical.

All of these criticisms are hotly contested by BBS proponents who point to reams of research that support their methodologies, but critics counter that research conducted by individuals with a financial stake in the findings is intrinsically unreliable.

Some critics focus on a more basic position that the level of variability in human behavior is so great that any attempt to manipulate it on a system level is unrealistic and impossible.

Even the harshest critics begrudgingly agree that the largest contributor to injuries cannot be ignored.  But what lies at the heart of the conflict is whether the root cause of workplace injuries is deliberate behavior or the processes and systems that encourage bad decision-making. In either case, most safety professionals will agree that behavior plays a pivotal role in workplace safety although it is unlikely that either side will ever agree on whether it is more effective to prevent the unsafe behavior or to shield workers from the consequences of unsafe behaviors.

Worker injuries represent a significant threat to workplace productivity and profitability and as long as billions of dollars continue to be wasted and lives lost safety professionals will bitterly argue about the most effective way to attack the problem.

Next month…a look at process safety.






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What Will The Rising Tide Against Organized Labor Mean For Workplace Safety?

Organized labor world-wide is losing the battle for public opinion.  Governors in Ohio, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have openly stated their intentions to change the law to weaken the rights of workers toward collective bargaining. Many safety professionals take great pleasure in the seeming waning influence of organized labor; those that do are wrong.

Organized labor stood at the forefront for the fight for worker safety.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, many protections for workplace safety were forged in the blood and misery of early organizing efforts.  But what does one have to do with the other? It’s not like organized labor is the reason  that workplace safety regulations exist, or is it?

As recently as six months ago a national politician in the UK openly asked publicly if the laws in his country that held managers and business owners liable for workplace injuries weren’t too over reaching, and many governments are reconsidering safety laws and wondering if these laws don’t, in fact, make it too hard to do business.

Somewhere in this mix seems to be the idea that because it is so expensive to injure workers that government’s had, in these tough times, roll back some of these protections in favor of lower fines, and less severe penalties for work place safety violations.

I want to be clear, my intent is neither to support nor oppose organized labor, rather, I hope to raise awareness among safety professionals that these attacks on workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain, if successful, will have a profound detriment on worker safety world-wide.

I completely understand the argument that worker injuries are expensive, inefficient, and undesirable, but easing these restrictions and lessening the penalties for non-compliance is not the answer.  In light of the mining disasters, oil and gas deaths (and unprecedented environmental fallout) and even the response to the Japanese nuclear plant one would think that worker safety would become more of a priority not less so.  But in a climate where soaring unemployment and sluggish recover have people looking at their neighbors and asking if they don’t perhaps make too much money, it’s easy to equate workplace safety with job losses and generate public support for safety rollbacks.

Safety professionals and unions have long had a love-hate relationship.  Many safety professionals resent what they categorize as unwarranted defense of unsafe behaviors by organized labor while many safety representatives dismiss their management counterparts as puppets  for the company.  In many cases, neither side can get past their differences and the safety committee meetings degrade into gripe sessions.

And we need to face facts, in many workplaces the cost of sustaining safety incentive programs, safety observations, and dozens of safety meetings a month have made the cost of prevention disproportionate with the risk of worker injuries.  And yet, if businesses suggest abandoning safety bonuses or exploring low cost alternatives to existing safety programs they are accused of not caring about worker safety or (shudder) caring more about profits than they do about human life.

The reality is this problem is big, and promises to get bigger.  The 1990s and millennial decade saw unprecedented growth in safety prevention as a business.  As businesses realized they had to reduce the cost of injuries a cottage industry of safety providers sprang up seemingly overnight.  In flush times, safety professionals were able to implement safety prevention programs that added heads, and made more and more demands on the resources of the organization.

The danger goes deeper than companies feeling the financial pinch and unions fighting on other fronts.  Cut backs in the enforcement arms of regulatory agencies make it less likely that companies that openly defy the law are far less likely to be found out and almost certain to avoid any meaningful punishment.

So what’s the answer?

For starters, safety professionals, both union and management, need to look for ways to do less with more.  Incentive programs that offer cash and prizes for workers not getting hurt (or more likely reporting injuries) need to be scrapped.  As one manufacturing vice president once said to me, “I refuse to pay extra for something everyone should do intuitively” and as one union bargaining chair put it, “they think we’re stupid and careless.  For them to pay a bonus for not injuring workers is insulting to us.”  But discontinuing a financial incentive when so many people are struggling  for every nickle is likely to be met with fierce resistance.

Next, take down the safety posters.  A cutsie safety poster has never saved a life, and while children’s poster-contests may be popular and tug at the heart strings, it’s not likely that someone who disregards safety rules will suddenly be shocked into responsibility because of a crayon drawing.

And finally, we need to recognize the costs associated with watching workers complete tasks and telling them to work more safely.  Programs that require supervisors to spend significant time observing workers are inefficient.

That’s not to say that we should concede the fight and give up trying to protect workers, but we need to be pragmatic and sensible.  Safety professionals of all stripes need to take a hard look at the efficacy, cost, and value of the way they are doing business and look for ways that not only protect workers, but lower operating costs (like reducing downtime, employee turnover, or defects) and increase overall workplace efficiency.

There are a lot of people counting on us.  Yes, hurting workers is expensive, so we need to stop doing it.  But the answer can never be discount the penalties for skirting the laws or openly flouting worker protections.  If safety professionals don’t step up to this fight, who will?

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Are Government Regulations Getting In The Way of Safety?

As experts chide safety professionals to be more proactive and to think of safety in terms of the potential to harm instead of the incidence of harm, governments around the globe still measure safety using reactive, lagging indicators.

Is this bad? Isn’t governmental oversight of the workplace a good thing? Do we really want to consider rolling back government regulations and risk horrible tragedies? Well…yes, yes, and no.

Despite over a century of laws and enforcement aimed at protecting workers and a wealth of improvements in worker safety, there are still high profile safety, environmental, and public health disasters that renew the cry for greater action from the government.  It’s unfair to suggest that government regulations aren’t effective.  But using an ever increasing threat of fines or even criminal prosecution isn’t the answer to making the workplace safer.  Sure some business owners and managers will begrudgingly make the bear minimum investment to meet governmental requirements but do we really want business to make the workplace safer out of fear?

When a business only improves the safety of the worker because it fears fines because of a governmental inspection it believes its compliance justifies it’s inaction beyond the bare minimum.  Smart Operations managers will improve safety not because it’s the “right thing to do”—there are a host of things in business that are the right things to do—but because it’s the smart thing to do.  As long as the government keeps its standards based on lagging indicators (incident rates, first aid cases, days away or restricted, etc.) it perpetuates the idea that any work place that hasn’t killed anyone lately can be pronouced “safe”.

We need to be practical.  Nobody ever died because a fire extinguisher wasn’t hanging at the proper distance from the floor, and simply having Material Safety Data  Sheets locked in a drawer may meet safety regulations, but it hasn’t  saved any lives either.

In defense of government regulators, we have to start somewhere.  In many parts of the world, industry has shown that it cannot be trusted to safeguard its workers or its communities.  So safety regulations are necessary.  And safety regulations aren’t broken, the philosophy behind them is.  Safety regulations start with the idea that safety is quantifiable, that is, it believes that one can pronounce a workplace either “safe” or “unsafe”. While it would be nice if this were true, the fact is that no workplace can be pronounced completely safe.  And perpetuating an audit system that pretends that it’s possible to certify a workplace as devoid of risk is wrong-headed.

Certainly, audits are important and valuable, but they are problematic as well.  Auditors inspect a facility and ostensibly find and record all violations.  After the audit, the organization resumes business as usual under the reasonable assumption that everything else it is doing is not only safe, but endorsed as safe by the government.  The organization believes that it doesn’t need to lift a finger to do anything to further protect workers, after all, it has just received the government’s seal of approval.  Unfortunately, safety doesn’t work that way.  Why?

Auditors Miss Things

Even the best, most diligent auditor will occasionally miss some violations.  Some of these violations are big, some are small; some are harmless nuisances and some are lethal.  But because the facility passed the audit, it believes that it has done all it has to guarantee worker safety.  Internal safety officers and labor reps can talk until they are blue in the face but their arguments will likely fall on deaf ears because the government has already told them that they are doing all that is required.

Regulations Target The Wrong Things

Most governments require fire extinguishers be on hand, annually inspected, hung at a proper height, identified through signage, etc., but far fewer require that anyone be trained in when and how to appropriately use the fire extinguisher.  Using the wrong fire extinguisher can make the situation far worse, but we still do a half-baked job of regulating them.

Safety Is Relative

Safety is not a binary condition.  Life is not as simple as a facility being “safe” or “unsafe”.  Regulations should be updated to reflect that safety is relative. A facility can be seen as safer than another facility that is similar to it.  Or a facility can judged as safer than it was when it’s baseline was established. Or a host of other comparisons that would be meaningful and would encourage businesses to do more  than the bare minimum.

Some regulators have tried to do this kind of comparative analysis.  In Ontario, Canada, the provincial government provides businesses with a Workplace Wellness Score.  Companies with high injuries and low workplace wellness scores face higher taxes than similar companies with lower injury rates and better scores.  Even so, Ontario’s system needs significant redesign to be most effective.  For example, injury rates and employee complaints are given far too much weight to make the program effective. Workers can shut down production by asserting that the work is unsafe to be performed.  Work stops until a Minister of Labour representative can investigate and pronounce the work safe. While in many cases this regulation is used in good faith there is widespread abuse of this law has turned safety into a negotiating tactic.  People are playing dangerous games with the law.

Audits Are Static Workplaces are Dynamic

Recently I was asked to begin reviewing the covers of a safety magazine.  The job seemed simple enough: I was to look at a proposed magazine cover and determine whether there was anything unsafe portrayed (no publisher of a safety magazine wants a cover that shows an unsafe condition on the cover).  Before agreeing to take the job, I made a point of making the disclaimer that a) nothing can ever be pronounced completely safe, and b) I was looking at a static photo without context so I couldn’t really say that the workers in the photo were working safely, but conversely no one looking at the same photo could say definitively that the worker was behaving unsafely.

The exercise got me thinking,  Safety is a dynamic characteristic that is highly dependent on context and yet audits are snapshots of a moment within the highly fluid and dynamic world of business.  However valuable that snapshot is, however much is uncovered in the audit, it’s just a snapshot.  The highly volatile and ever present variability in human behavior will always create problematic situations.  In short, no matter how thorough the audit, significant threats to worker well being can materialize literally as the auditor drives away.

How Can We Fix This?

Fixing the problem is going to be difficult.  In the U.K. politicians are openly asking if the laws designed to protect workers are too restrictive.  In the U.S. congressmen repeatedly claim that safety regulations are too strict and place an undue onus on businesses. And what’s worse is 40 years of BBS snake oil has safety professionals themselves reinforcing the believe that workers are largely to blame for their injuries.

We need to evangelize that safety is about reducing the risk of injury, and the severity of those injuries that we failed to prevent.  Safety needs to be a criteria for success not an after thought.  Safety regulations need to change from quantitative measurements to qualitative measurements.  And finally we need to make people understand that improving safety is not about cost, its about cost reduction and cost savings.


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