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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