Four Flaws of Behavior-Based Safety

By Phil LaDuke

There is a growing body of evidence that BBS does more harm than good (the current head of the OSHA recently expressed his concerns that incentives and BBS were creating a climate where not reporting injuries is more important than preventing injuries. That is not to say that there are not studies on the wonderful effectiveness of BBS (although a fair amount funded by companies that make tens of millions of dollars selling it). So how can studies show diametrically opposed points of view?

For starters there is no international standard that differentiates BBS from well… BS. Anyone can describe there particular flavor of snake oil as Behavior Based Safety. Read the admittedly less than universally respected reference Wikipedia article on BBS and it reads like a brochure written by the closed head injured. It is far from impartial, and anyone who dares question the value of BBS is soundly shouted down. The vagueness with which people talk about BBS is astonishing (and no, I don’t include everyone in this condemnation, but let’s face it there are a lot of quacks out there selling some quasi-psycho babble as BBS and it has hurt anyone who labels there approach to worker safety as BBS.

Here’s a thought. What if we stopped creating labels for our safety? would it kill us if we didn’t keep trotting out a new complex safety panacea? Behaviors cause injuries. I get it. But there is plenty more to consider (whether or not the behavior was the result of conscious, informed decision making, for starters) than behavior (like how individuals behave differently in a population, or the innate, uncontrollable variation in human behavior to name two.

Honestly there are so many people who are so quick to jump to defend BBS it really makes me suspicious of whether it is the methodology or their livelihoods that they are so adamant about protecting (again, Dominic, I am not throwing stones at you, but having just returned from a major safety conference where I heard dozens of specious arguments about why more people should invest in BBS that I could just pull my hair out.

And while we’re at it, how many of the new charlatans selling culture change solutions where schilling have baked BBS 5 years ago? Until I hear a BBS proponent that will even consider that there are other, perhaps better solutions out there, I will continue to be skeptical. Too many of these professionals are process zealots—the care far more about the methodology than the results, and that is dangerous. These people will always dismiss individual cases (whether it be an injury or a catastrophe) as statistical outliers or anomalies or in some way the fault of someone else.

If BBS is so clearly the best solution, why does it need defending? And why are their so many hotly contested variations of it.

I understand that several giants of BBS certify safety professionals in their methodologies.  It’s a great business model: safety professionals, buoyed by their new found sense of importance and portable credentials, become advocates for your methodology.  They will push and advocate your system and you will make money hand over fist.  If you can live with the fact that people will not be protected while you make huge profits I guess this is a pretty good life.

More and more companies are finding Behavior-Based Safety Programs just don’t deliver what they promise and are moving to a more balanced and practical approach to managing worker Health and Safety. Executives are drawn to Behavior-Based Safety Programs because they promise quick and painless results. Safety professionals are attracted to the idea that worker behavior is the cause of most workplace injuries. Unfortunately, experts are beginning to question whether or not Behavior-Based Safety is based on a foundation of flawed premises. Flaw 1: Behavior is a contributor in 93 percent of injuries. On the surface, this kind of statistic would certainly seem to argue strongly in favor of a Behavior-Based Safety Program, but it is a specious argument. 100 percent of injuries have a behavioral element. The formula for an injury is Hazard + Interaction + Catalyst = Injury. By definition, an interaction is behavioral in nature, so essentially the argument that unsafe behavior accounts for 93 percent of all injuries is akin to saying, “If workers didn’t DO anything, they wouldn’t get hurt.” Fair statement, but then who wants a workplace where no work is done? Flaw 2: Behavior modification is an effective tool in reducing workplace injuries. Most Behavior-Based Safety Programs rely on recognition and rewards to positively reinforce safe behaviors and discourage unsafe behaviors. So, basically, a worker is forced to choose between seeking treatment and receiving a safety incentive. “If you had told me when I was building seats for the General Motors Fleetwood Plant that I would get a $50 quarterly bonus if I didn’t get injured, you would not hear about any of my injuries unless I left the plant in an ambulance.” What tends to happen in these programs is that inflammation of the elbow turns into tendonitis which then turns into carpal tunnel syndrome and the resulting cost of treatment is astronomical. Research has shown that such systems are certainly effective at discouraging the reporting of injuries, but there is little evidence that behavior modification has any sustainable effect on the corporate culture. Flaw 3: Unsafe behavior is deliberate. Behavior-Based Safety starts with the premise that if workers were more careful, less of them would get hurt. This philosophy appeals to many executives who, frustrated by a lack of progress in reducing injuries, would like to put the burden for workplace safety back onto the worker. Two better premises are “nobody wants to get hurt” and “no system is designed to hurt workers.” If these premises are true, no amount of behavior modification will lower worker injuries. Flaw 4: People take unnecessary risks because they are careless. In the many incident investigations that I have conducted where behavior played a key causative role, the clear majority of the injured workers took the risk because a) they were trying to show initiative and save time, and b) they were unaware of the magnitude of the risk they were taking, and/or c) they didn’t believe the risk was credible. Very few of these injured workers believed they were putting themselves in serious jeopardy. So is Behavior-Based Safety so deeply flawed that there is no room for recognition programs in a world-class safety process? Absolutely not; here are some tips for integrating recognition programs into your safety process: Reward the Right Things. Instead of rewarding workers for not getting injured, reward them for identifying system flaws that cause injuries. A reward for a suggestion that makes the workplace safer is far more meaningful than one for “collective safety” where an entire department is rewarded for going without an injury. Understand and Correct the Root Causes of Unsafe Behaviors. It’s not enough to identify unsafe behaviors; to truly improve workplace safety, one has to take proactive steps to remove hazards (both process flaws AND unsafe behaviors) before people get hurt. Rewarding workers who identify and correct the root causes of injuries is a good use of recognition and reward programs. Don’t Jump to Conclusions About Behaviors. Use “repetitive whys” to understand the thought processes that lead to unsafe behaviors before reacting to them. More often than not, the process dictates the behavior.


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