If BBS Is So Bad Why Do People Love it So Much?


By Phil La Duke

Popularity seldom equals value or worth. When I would criticize a celebrity that I disliked, my late mother would almost always respond, “well they make a lot of money doing that so they must be doing something right,” to which I would respond, “I can make a lot of money robbing liquor stores or turning tricks at a truck stop but that doesn’t make these things good or a benefit to society.” Think of this exchange often when people challenge my assertion that there is a better way to safety with “Then why is so popular, and why do companies spend millions on it?”
The answer isn’t complex. BBS is easy and fast to implement so many companies figure so what if it is ineffectual, or to be fair, needlessly costly for a meager return ineffectiveness.

I have gone over, around, and through what’s wrong with BBS but essentially I have been arguing outcomes. I don’t think I’m wrong for arguing outcomes, but I DO think that I need to address the elephant in the dining room and talk about WHY BBS fails to deliver on its promises.

A LinkedIn contact said in condemning BBS, quoting, I believe a national study. “BBS works the Hierarchy of Controls upside down.” Most of us have heard of the Hierarchy of Controls, it’s yet another pyramid where the most effective measure of reducing risks sit atop the hierarchy and the least effective form the base of the pyramid.

The Hierarchy of Controls is a tool used to apply the most effective controls to processes. At the top of the hierarchy are the most effective controls, albeit the most difficult to implement. The layers of the hierarchy proceeding downward from their getting less effective and easier to implement.

Elimination. Design the hazard out, or remove it once it is in production.
Substitution. Replace the hazard with something less hazardous.
Engineering Controls. Physically construct barriers that prevent workers from interacting with a hazard.
Administrative. Rules, training, procedures, discipline, coaching, or just plain telling people to be more careful.
Personal Protective Equipment. Safety glasses, gloves, welding goggles, basically the suits of armor we put on workers to protect them when all else fails.

Companies that employ a BBS system are focusing on the easiest, fastest measures, which are also on the least effective controls. Instead of working up the hierarchy and looking for better, more effective solutions, BBS is just an attempt to make the easy, scientifically proven ineffective controls better. It seeks to redesign the people instead of redesigning the system.

Years ago I developed a way to immediately inform site leaders, safety personnel, and Operation or Maintenance leaders when an employee was working in a controlled area without locking out. No one cared. The technology existed and the company I was working at, at the time, wasn’t even going to charge for it. It was simply a matter of connecting the software that controlled these areas with our hazard tracking system. The client said “no”. Its reasoning was befuddling, “if we do that and we don’t act fast enough we could be liable.” “But if you kill someone you will be liable ANYWAY,!” I argued to deaf ears. It used to be we valued knowledge and armed with just a little knowledge we believed we could do great things. But now we revile knowledge and innovative. No one wants to believe that things can be as simple of getting rid of a hazard or substituting it with something less treacherous.
At the heart of BBS is the belief that people are at fault for injuries. Through what they have done or what they have failed to do. And people do, in fact, do a lot of stupid things. They rig safety interlocks with “jumpers” so they enter energized equipment, they remove guards to make it easier to clear jams, they run with scissors, they text while driving. But the answer isn’t to try to reprogram people with theories built on 100-year old junk science.
But what IS the solution. The average safety practitioner can’t eliminate a hazard that has been designed into a process or piece of equipment, but the Safety Function can convince Engineering leadership to invest in Design For Assembly/Manufacturing training and software. The Safety Function can get involved in and help create Failure Modes Effects Analysis with Engineers and talk about the implications of a design on the safety of the workers.
We need to accept that workers will ALWAYS make mistakes, but those mistakes should be death sentences. The things that make the lowest controls on the hierarchy ineffective are the amount that they depend on worker compliance, competence, and lack of mistake making.
So breaking it down:
People make mistakes
We can either try in vain to change point number one or we can concentrate instead on making sure that these mistakes don’t injure or kill people.
BBS seems to ignore point #1 and seems to believe that they can change the truth that “To err is human”. System after system plays God with worker’s trying to shape and mold them into some creature that doesn’t make mistakes. The goal is to make the worker better than robots (which, believe it or not, also make mistakes) the goal isn’t zero harm in these systems, it’s zero errors, zero machine malfunctions, zero parts shortages, and zero management accountability. You can make workers smarter, more competent, and even more engaged, but you will never make them infallible.
We need to focus less on fixing people and blame and more on fixing system errors, replacing worn out equipment and tools, and for the love of all that is holy protect people when they make a mistake.

Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my book which can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Nobel.com. 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 fewer reprints and more new material).