Why BBS will Live Forever

By Phil La Duke

Just when you think the debate over Behavior-Based Safety has faded from the landscape something brings it crashing back into your consciousness. For me it was a recent article (and the response to it) by Dr. James Leemann. Jim asked the question “will Human and Organization Performance (HOP) finally supplant BBS” as the prevalent approach to worker safety? As one might suppose the BBS zealots and whack-jobs came crawling out of the woodwork to complain.

I’m a big proponent of HOP because it fixes system problems not the blame. HOP goes beyond the behavior and address the system-wide antecedents, the things that precede and encourage the very behaviors that influence safety. I don’t think it’s a perfect system for protecting workers but I believe that safety is the output of well-managed business systems and so HOP makes a lot of sense to my clients and me.

The backlash to Jim’s article was predictable; the usual suspects accused Jim of not understanding BBS, not having seen BBS properly deployed, etc. etc. etc.

The whole argument exhausts me. I’ve said before that arguing against BBS is like telling someone you don’t like eating fricasseed squirrel anus. The first response is always, “well you just haven’t had it cooked right; you need to try MY fricasseed squirrel anus—you’ll love it!” So you try there version and it tastes even worse that the last time. But you still don’t, in the eyes of the fricasseed squirrel anus lobby, have any real standing, how many squirrel anuses (anusi?) does a man have to eat before the nut jobs cooking it will allow that said man to refuse on the grounds that squirrel anus is unpalatable?

To speak up against BBS is, in the mind fanatics, to speak out against safety, God, apple-pie and motherhood; it doesn’t matter how much evidence you produce that BBS doesn’t work, creates bloated bureaucracies, and encourages under-reporting of injuries, you will never convince the true believers that BBS is anything less than the one true path. It’s like trying to convince Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme that Charles Manson isn’t a pure soul; talking about it is like doing a card trick for a dog.

I’m at a loss to explain why BBS lingers in the same way I’m at a loss to explain why some people still believe in the Loch Ness Monster when most of the most credible evidence has since been exposed as so much bunk, or why there are Big Foot sightings in every state of the Union (including Hawaii), or why people believe in alien autopsies while others refuse to believe that the moon landing was anything more than a government conspiracy with a Hollywood twist.

For some BBS is an important source of income and in those cases it is not inconceivable that either they unethically cling to something that they know is snake oil or they have convinced themselves to ignore information that threatens their livelihoods; either way they have the strongest possible financial incentive to refute any claim that BBS doesn’t work. It’s much like a child who begins to doubt the existence of Santa Clause but is terrified that if he or she voices this doubt the Christmas gravy train will end and there will be no more Christmas present bonanza; the pragmatist in each of us will play it safe and perpetuate the Santa Claus myth even though long after we ourselves have long stopped believing.

For others BBS is a crutch on which they lean to compensate for the lack of real competency in safety. When one doesn’t quite get it, one clings to those things that they CAN understand. If you have a safety practitioner who lacks understanding of the basic safety regulations will find BBS a comforting alternative, with it’s simplistic “just reward safe behaviors” philosophy. Many people who don’t know the hard science side of safety will gravitate toward the simple argument that “if 80% of injuries is caused by behavior then we should focus on behaviors”.

In a broader sense BBS has a wide appeal to the key players within an organization. Management likes the “let’s hold workers accountable for working safe” underpinnings of BBS. Safety professionals like the number of resources that fall under their control; they get to spend money and engage in a wide range of activities. Employees love the pizza parties and safety BINGOs and safety bonuses. And of course vendors love the revenue it brings in. There is a conspiratorial feel to all this that sets off alarm bells.

Still others, and I believe this is the largest group speak about BBS in philosophical terms. Those in this group will insist vendors have a behavior-based safety system in place as a condition of doing business; it’s a nice thought but what then constitutes a “behavior-based safety” system? Is it enough that the safety system address unsafe behaviors? If so, this is fundamentally flawed unless the definition includes some context, and because all behavior exists within a context the definition would have to be exhaustive to be of any use whatever. What’s that old saying about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions? Wikipedia, granted nobody’s vision of a credible source, defines Behavior Based Safety as “the “application of science of behavior change to real world problems”.or “(their spelling error not mine). A process that creates a safety partnership between management and employees that continually focuses people’s attentions and actions on theirs, and others, daily safety behavior.BBS (again their screw up) “focuses on what people do, analyzes why they do it, and then applies a research-supported intervention strategy to improve what people do” Let’s take that one phrase at a time:

“application of science of behavior change” according to behaviorscience.com the science of behavior change is behaviorism. And according to the American Board of Professional Psychology (people who it would seem ought to know) “behaviorism” “emphasizes an experimental-clinical approach to the application of behavioral and cognitive sciences to understand human behavior and develop interventions that enhance the human condition.” I’m pretty sure that BBS as practiced is just about as far from this as can be reasonably imagined.

“A process that creates a safety partnership between management and employees that continually focuses people’s attentions and actions on theirs, and others, daily safety behavior”. Here, while many BBS systems aspire to this none can honestly say they have achieved it, for if such a system does exist there would be no injuries, no near misses, no need for the hapless companies to frantically feed the BBS money machine.

“focuses on what people do, analyzes why they do it, and then applies a research-supported intervention strategy to improve what people do” Again, while BBS may do all these things, to what end? They haven’t and never will prove that all this focus and research changes human behavior one whit, nor does it change the ingrained tendency for people to make errors, take risks, and behave unpredictably. No, I am not condemning anyone who requires his or her vendors to have a behavior-based safety system—just using safety performance as a criteria for selection will save more lives than not doing so. I am not condemning anything really, I just want to know why merely asking the question “is it time to dump BBS and consider another approach” is seen as abject ignorance or malicious heresy. Is a world without BBS so threatening and scary?


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