Forget BBS There Is A Better Way

Causing Safety

by Phil La Duke

Let me begin by thanking one of my readers for suggesting this subject.  I made a remark about how there are far more effective, cheaper, and sustainable ways to address worker safety than BBS, and she was interested in the details.  I will apologize in advance for the length of this post but I could probably write 1000 of each of the elements.

But before we begin let me just say that BBS proponents are absolutely correct that behaviors must be addressed (mostly their own). 100% of injuries involve behavior as a causative factor because if someone isn’t doing something he or she is not likely to get hurt.  The previous statement can be deceptive. Years ago, a boiler exploded in a nearby factory killing (if my memories serve) four workers. The workers did nothing wrong; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The boiler was well maintained, showed no sign of damage, and was well within its useful life.  Ultimately, the fault was found to be in the metal that was used to create the boiler itself. Someone at the foundry decided to go out of the process and create the steel (or iron I honestly don’t know which) outside the normal operating procedure which produced material that was significantly less durable than it was supposed to be.  So the behavior here was so far up the chain of causation it is doubtful that the person who made that decision almost a decade earlier would likely be identified let alone held accountable. The point I am trying to make is that I don’t oppose addressing unsafe behaviors, I am merely pointing out that doing so is a lot more complicated than the snake oil industry would have you believe.

So what then is the answer? First let’s start with the assumption that “safety” is not the absence of injuries, rather, it is the absence of risk.  Since the absence of risk is impossible, we need to accept that absolute safety is a fairytale. Second, let’s agree that what we call “safety” doesn’t just happen, rather it is the product of the efforts of many people throughout the organization. Finally, let’s acknowledge that the organization must truly have safety as a value.  Some confuse the noun value with the verb value. The noun “value” means a deeply ingrained belief, so entrenched in who we are that it is almost impossible to act in a way that contradicts this belief. The verb, “to value” is to place worth on something. One can value safety without having safety as a value, and this distinction is critical and key.  All this means that if your leadership places a value on safety but does not have safety as one of each and every one of their values, the organization will always struggle with a sustainable safety because when we place value on something that value isn’t static, in fact, in some organizations it can be extremely fluid. In other words, when we place value on something it becomes a priority and in so doing competes with other priorities.

So if safety is a core value then it is non-negotiable.  The safest companies in the world have this value, but what does that really mean. I have found there are two kinds of support for safety, philosophical and operational.  Philosophical support for safety is almost universal, I am yet to meet a CEO who says, “I would love to kill more workers (I even made a list) but I just can’t afford it” or a middle manager who says “we are going to make my production goals even if I have to kill have my workers to do it.”  No one in their right minds says these things though I often wonder how many leaders secretly feel this way to some extent. At the risk of repeating myself, I will explain this further when I get to the section on leadership.

The business elements (in no particular order) that most profoundly influence our operating risk (what we call safety) are:

  • Competency,
  • Process Capability,
  • Leadership,
  • Hazard and Risk Management,
  • Accountability Systems, and
  • Engagement


When most people think of competency they think of a worker’s ability to do the job, and for the most part, they are correct, but there’s more to it than that.  Competency touches many functions of the organization and unfortunately, the Safety function has little to do with this area. Competency begins by having accurate work instructions that are kept up-to-date and are the source of truth for doing a specific job.  Sadly, jobs often change (sometimes many times and profoundly) between the time a job is conceived and when it is ultimately executed in the work area. Job descriptions need to accurately and SPECIFICALLY reflect the physical, mental, and emotional requirements of a job.  Unfortunately, in our caution to ensure that we don’t limit ourselves in our ability to freely and quickly place people in other jobs we tend to put in vague statements like “and other duties as directed” into the job descriptions, which, if you think about it means a front-line leader could easily put someone in harms way because the job description allows for it.  You can’t have flexibility without adding variance and variance increases risk.

Next, we have Human Resources and hiring managers who bicker about “getting a body in here” when they need to fill vacancies.  The job description should be matched against the competencies of the candidate and the areas where the applicant lacks competency should be evaluated. The recruiter, staffing manager, and hiring manager should determine if the holes in the competency can be filled through training. There is a TON wrong with how we currently do safety training. “What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How To Fix It” over 12 years ago and not much has changed.  If you want to read it, it’s in my new book, but it can also be found by Googling it. Once someone is trained, this training must be reinforced on the floor. Too often in the rush to get the new person production ready, we shortcut the reinforcement on the job. Experts suggest that as little of 20% of training is retained, and I ask you, does that sound like someone capable of making safe choices? If you don’t have time to do it right when will you find time to do it over?  Finally, competency must be evaluated periodically and interventions should be administered where necessary. The average performance evaluation is a joke. We talk about attendance, quality of the work, teamwork, and a lot of crap that is meaningless compared to “can this worker safely and accurately perform his or her job, and if so, does he or she?” For my money, there isn’t much more to evaluate.

Even the most dedicated and intelligent worker is subject to behavioral drift.  Behavioral drift is when a worker subconsciously moves away from the standard. This movement happens gradually until the worker is working completely out of specification and is endangering people, process, and production.  Frequent interaction with workers (along with knowing the standard and job requirements) by leaders to nudge the workers back into specification is the most effective way of ensuring not only competence but also peak performance.  We can’t forget that competency degrades over time—people forget steps, people get older less able to meet the physical rigors of a job, and people find shortcuts.

Every process in your company, from processing invoices to building widgets, or delivering packages, or extract raw material from the ground has process variability.  Every piece of equipment has upper and lower control limits and as long as the process operates at between those ranges things go wonderfully. The purpose here isn’t to teach even a rudimentary lesson in SPC, Six Sigma, or any continuous improvement,  but suffice to say, all processes (both highly automated and highly manual, and everywhere in between) operate with some variation and depending on the process that can be okay or it can be disastrous (imagine how tight the process controls must be on the manufacture of medicines for example.)

Now I want you to consider the variation of the people working for your company.  If you are like most workplaces you have a diversity of people by age, gender, height, weight, etc. You probably have a handful of very smart people and a handful of not so bright bulbs and the rest of your population is somewhere in between.  You also have a diversity of capabilities. Some people may only be able to lift 15 lbs 60 times an hour for 10 hours a day, while others can only lift 7.5 lbs at that same rate. If the person who is less physically robust than the job requires he or she will eventually wear out and suffer ergonomic injuries or simply quit.  Before that happens the worker is going to likely suffer fatigue which in turn has been linked to a variety of illnesses and impairs people’s judgment (depending on the amount of fatigue it can be as impaired as someone legally drunk on alcohol.)

Similarly, a person doing a job that requires heavy concentration (remember all those awareness campaigns and friendly reminders to pay attention?) after several hours the person is likely to suffer from attention fatigue and this has the same adverse effects as physical fatigue.  

So what can be done to improve safety by ensuring competency? Several things:

  1. Create multi-functional teams so that HR, Engineering, Training, Safety, and Operations can get the right people in the right jobs and can design jobs that are less likely to allow incompetent people to work in jobs that will hurt them or others.
  2. Periodically coach workers to acquaint them with the job standards.
  3. Ensure the Standard Work Instructions are in place and up to date.

Process Capability

It should stand to reason that a process that doesn’t return the same result on a consistent basis is likely to eventually hurt someone.  If a person has to figure out on the job how to safely do it—not the way it is supposed to work but the way things actually work on the job—they are most likely to do so through minor injuries, near misses and company folklore.  Every job, and I mean EVERY SINGLE JOB should have a Standard Work Instruction associated with it, and that SWI should be based on the safest way to do the job.  As with the case of competency, improving process capability doesn’t just make the workplace safer, it positively impacts, Quality, Delivery, Cost, Morale, and the Environment. Things run more smoothly which results in less work for everyone and a more pleasant workplace which in turn reduces the stress put on workers and eliminates some of the problems we mentioned in the section on competency.

So what can be done to improve safety by improving your process? Again, several things:

  1. Implement a Total Productive Maintenance System.
  2. Fix equipment before it completely breaks down.
  3. Integrate safety into continuous improvement programs.


Perhaps I should have started here. Leadership might not be most important in creating a safer worksite but poor leadership is the best way to destroy a safety culture.  Leadership is more than telling people what to do, it’s about inspiring people to trust and respect you. Your executive suite to your frontline leaders MUST spend time with the people on the frontline both to set an example and to understand why people so frequently violate rules.  Spending quality time talking to workers and hearing to their challenges (and more important DOING something about those challenges) and getting back to the people who voiced them is essential. If you don’t think you’re leaders are willing or capable of this start looking for another job because you won’t be successful at a company led by such people.

There is much more I could say on leadership but I will finish with this leaders either have safety as a deeply ingrained value or it’s so much lip service, and the people on the front line have a pretty accurate bullshit meter.

So what can be done to improve safety leadership?

  1. Re-Educate them. We have been feeding this psychobabble for so long we have to reprogram to see safety as a crucial business element.  
  2. Provide meaningful leading and lagging indicators and teach them what the data is telling them.
  3. Teach them that leading safety is no different than leading any of their other core values.

Hazard and Risk Management

Hazard management is not nearly as difficult as it is made out to be.  The first line supervisor owns the responsibility for the safety of the workplace.  It’s fine to say that everyone owns safety in the workplace but I can be the safest worker in the world but if someone is drunk on a fork truck and runs me down there isn’t much I can do about it.  Supervisors should conduct a walkthrough of their areas once a week at a minimum, recording hazards (I’ve developed a database that was tablet based and automatically routed hazards to the person responsible for correcting the issue.) It established timelines for correction depending on the risk level of the hazard.) The system doesn’t need to be that sophisticated, however, pencil and paper work just fine as long people are held accountable and containment actions are properly tracked.

So what can be done to improve safety by managing our risk and eliminating hazards?

  1. This is something of a no-brainer, injuries require three things: a hazard, and interaction, and catalysts. By eliminating any one of these elements you reduce the risk of injuries.

Accountability Systems

I’ve found that the best system for accountability is Just Culture.  Just Culture recognizes that there are different approaches to different behaviors.  Under Just Culture there are three recognized behaviors: human error, at-risk behavior, and recklessness (some will argue carelessness but it’s not an issue I want to get into right now.) Human Error is unintentional and subconscious and therefore it would not be just to punish people for something they never intended; these types of behaviors tend to be directly related to a system flaw. At-risk behavior can range from simple actions taken because a process doesn’t cover the situation to actions that skirt the line of recklessness.  These types of behaviors tend to be relative to people thinking that they have decision rights that they really don’t possess, the proper course of action is to coach the employee in the appropriate way to have handled the situation. Of course, recklessness, defined as a behavior so risky that the risk was completely disproportionate with any possible reward. There is no excuse for recklessness and the offender should be dismissed from the company. Under Just Culture the outcome doesn’t matter—a human error that kills someone is treated in the same way a human error that has little consequences.  This is hard for people to accept, but absent other extenuating circumstances simple human error is the same irrespective of the outcome. The only truly subjective area of Just Culture is in risk-taking and that can be addressed during training.

So how do we benefit from increased accountability?

  1. Accountability systems increase morale and reduce the perception of favoritism or of double standards.


Engagement is far different than motivation. A motivated employee will work toward a reward but quickly loses interest after the goal has been reached.  Engagement is the tendency is to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Engaged workers have a strong work ethic that is more intrinsic. Dr. Paul Marciano’s book Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work is a great handbook for engaging working.

  1. Engaged employees are easier to manage, are self-directed, and participate in making things better all the way around.


I said at the onset that there was a better, easier, cheaper and alternative to BBS.  This may at first blush seem to be none of those. But consider, most of the work will be done by others in the organization and the benefits end up improving the range of business performance across the spectrum it really is easier, faster, cheaper, and more effective, but more than that, it’s YOURS, you decide how to make adjustments to your business needs and environment. You aren’t beholding to an overly bureaucratic system with copyrighted materials.  What’s more, it’s scalable. If you just improve ONE of these areas you will improve your business and your safety more than ten years of BBS.

Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my up-coming book which can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Did you hate this post? Did it offend you deeply? Maybe you should organize a book burning (minimum of 150 books) but be sure you  are only burning my book, I don’t want you to go to a used book store and buy a bunch of cheap books and stack mine on top.

The book is a compilation of blog posts, guest blogs, magazine article (from around the world) and new material. Much of it is hard to find unless you know where to look. A second and third book has already been green-lighted  by the publisher (expect less reprints and more new material).