Is BBS just BS?

By Phil La Duke

Recently I was contacted by a student who is earning his degree in preparation for a career in Environmental Health & Safety.  He was given an assignment during his internship to research why Unions oppose Behavior Based Safety (BBS). It seems that in preparing for the assignment he happened across some of my writings that are critical of BBS and he wanted to know why I was so critical of BBS when so much of what I criticized would never be a part of what he was taught was not part of an “effective BBS program”.

First of all, I must applaud the young man for contacting me and asking me to defend my point of view.  I find that the on-going polarization in the debate in safety makes it rare that anyone actually seeks out opposing points of view; it would have been much easier to denounce me as uninformed, a nut, or provocative for provocation’s sake.  That having been said, I was alarmed that so many professors are still teaching BBS as undisputed fact.  This young man described me as one of the few opponents of BBS  he could find.  This is troubling on several levels.  I know of a growing number of people who are increasingly disenchanted with BBS but they openly tell me that they will not publicly criticize it because of the fanatics who shout down all other opinions or research that does not support their world view. In my writing, I admit that I have used very basic criticism of BBS because most people don’t even understand this very rudimentary criticism.

I believe (and I am not by any means alone in this) that BBS is inherently flawed; it’s a dead technology—even in its current state.  Its foundation is based on the erroneous and misleading statistic that 95% of injuries is caused by unsafe behavior.  Most experts that I know doubt the methodology that drew this conclusion. Along the same lines, the methodology Heinrich used to build his pyramid was species and is generally thought to be little more than one man’s opinion (that he reached after asking supervisors for their opinion with no scientific method to back up). Heinrich’s theories are on the periphery of BBS, but I believe there are substantial parallels in methodology.  Anecdotal data isn’t reliable.  Before you cite further studies, I will tell you that I have no respect for research conducted by companies and pundits who have billions in revenue at stake.  How likely are we to ever see the findings should the research prove that BBS is bunk?  I understand the argument that I have criticized older methods; I have heard that over and over again. But given that any criticism I make on a basic level draws, “that’s not the way we do BBS anymore” I remain unmoved. This response is like someone telling me the reason I don’t like eating squirrel and opossum anuses is because I just haven’t had them cooked right. After a while it gets to be like hitting a moving target…forgive me if I don’t continue to seek out the perfectly cooked and seasoned squirrel anus.

And despite the apparently underground outpouring of support for BBS, critics persist. Many companies famous for advocating BBS continue to be accused of encouraging under-reporting of injuries.  BP was once the shining example of BBS successes, do I really have to trot out its safety record?

Too many people continue to make corrections to there BBS as it fails; it’s flawed. It’s time to move past it, salvage what works, and discard the rest.

In other writings, I’ve said the following before, but just to be clear:

  • BBS is based on behavior modification.  When I say this, I either get one of two responses: “so what?” or “you’re over simplifying it”. Most behavior modification experiments ignore how people behave in populations, and safety is about how populations behave, not individuals. Nobody has ever satisfactorily answered this criticism and generally dismiss the statement by telling me that I don’t know what I am taking about.  Illuminate me.
  • People make mistakes; it’s a biological fact.  The reason people make mistakes is NOT because they are being careless. Current theory on mistake making is that the brain deliberately causes us to subconsciously test the safety of adapting by making little experiments.  Sometimes we call them discoveries and sometimes we call them mistakes.  All the observations, and reminders, and training, and all elements of BBS will not change the fact that people make mistakes, but we spend a fortune trying to; it’s misguided.
  • People take risks, and that’s a good thing.  People get up in the morning, they drive to work, they take short cuts, they take risks.  Taking risks are a necessary part of the workplace and BBS tends to pretend that it isn’t.  We need to do a better job of training workers to take risks appropriately and stop telling them to not take risks when we know that they will.
  • People wander away from the standards.  As we perform routine tasks we drift from the standard, BBS tries to address this, but does so amateurishly and ham-fistedly that it is difficult to take it seriously. Basic exercises designed to teach the difficulty in maintaining a standard easily demonstrate the impossibility of sticking to a standard when faced with variability in human behavior.
  • There needs to be a greater focus on protecting people from mistakes. Instead of trying to shape behaviors, organizations should manage the things that tend to cause people to make more mistakes. This approach would not only improve safety but would also improve productivity and quality and other factors as well.
  • One-Size Does Not Fit All.  BBS tends to take a one-size-fits approach, there isn’t an industry, environment, or population that the fanatics won’t claim that BBS is the answer, often before they even know the question.

All that being said, I think that there are elements of BBS that can be useful, but not as long as fanatics keep proselytizing BBS at all costs. There is such a strong population who will not listen to anything that does not proclaim the sanctity of BBS that most of the critics of BBS (and there are lots of us) have stopped talking.

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