Behavior-Based Safety – Over 5,000 people are killed and almost 3 million people are injured at work each year in the U.S. Controlling hazards, providing appropriate protective equipment, implementing strong safety rules and procedures are necessary preconditions for an excellent safety culture, but these steps are only part of the solution.
To take safety performance to the next level, safety professionals must examine the interaction of equipment, facilities, procedures, people, and organizational systems and focus on the factors that contribute to risky behaviors and unsafe conditions. Behavior‑based safety (BBS) is the most efficient and effective way to approach these complex interactions and develop a thorough understanding of the many factors that affect employee engagement and safety performance.
When it was introduced, behavior-based safety (BBS) was seen as a magic panacea for everything that ailed safety programs.
Decades after the initial launch of behavior-based safety (BBS) programs, the process has lost favor with many safety managers, who claim the cost – such programs can be expensive – and the long-term results are not what they expected.
Some experts argue that expectations for behavior-based safety were unrealistic from the start, while others believe the process has been corrupted at some companies, transformed into an auditing program that assumes a “blame the employee” attitude about safety failures. Many believe that behavior-based safety makes the assumption you know what behaviors you should be doing, it assumes you know what to do and need to be reminded to do it.
Jim Spigener, vice president of BST Inc., a global safety consulting and solutions firm that was one of the pioneers in the concept of BBS, says BBS caught fire because “for years and years and years, there wasn’t much new in safety. Then someone seized on the fact that management might want to pay attention to employees. But very few companies were ready to embrace the whole movement.”
Even without a total commitment to changing the safety culture with BBS as a part of that process, BBS caught on “because it was getting results and it seemed to make sense,” says Spigener.
BBS was meant to be part of a bigger safety system, he adds, mentioning what he calls the “fatal error” of assuming that BBS in some form or another works as the only approach necessary to improve safety and reduce incidents.
“BBS, the way people talk about it now, is really a myth,” says Spigener. “A lot of companies jumped on the bandwagon, grabbed a BBS program off the shelf and now are disappointed with the results. And unions have a very good case for going after traditional BBS programs [that ‘blame’ the worker]. Traditional BBS programs don’t examine what drives employees to be in a hazardous situation.”
A perfect example to illustrate Spigener’s point. A facility that incurred repetitive losses from injuries employees suffered running up the lunchroom stairwell. Finally, an employee fell and broke his leg, at which point management adopted a BBS program, installing monitors in the hallway leading to the stairwell to remind employees to walk up the steps and to reiterate the company policy, which called for no running. Despite the focus on employee behavior, employees continued running up the stairs until a second major incident occurred, leaving an employee paralyzed. Finally, someone got smart and began to examine systemic causes for employee behavior that ran contrary to company policy and, even, common sense.
They weren’t asking the most basic question of employees: Why are you running up the stairs? The answer was, there aren’t enough chairs in the lunchroom. Employees knew, that if they were late entering the lunchroom, they had to stand to eat their lunches.
Behavior-based safety done right can be very effective at helping you discover what’s wrong with an organization, find the core organizational causes of risk. Done wrong, it can be used to mask organizational and management failures.
It’s the Culture, Stupid
BBS has its virtues, but it also has its faults, one of which is the lack of focus on the overall safety culture and environment at a facility. BBS:
- Focuses on the human side of safety;
- Defines safe and unsafe behaviors;
- Encourages safe behavior and discourages unsafe or destructive behaviors;
- Involves employees in safety;
- Requires management to put its money where its mouth is; and
- Engenders commitment and passion, especially in the early phases.
There are clearly good things about behavior-based safety, but there is more negative than positive in many of the BBS programs companies have adopted.
For example, many BBS programs, as packaged by the provider or used by the customer, don’t deal with the causes of safety failures; they deal with the symptoms.
If corporate management supports and encourages safe behavior by eliminating root causes – such as engineering, process, communication or training failures – then employees are more likely to want to adopt safe behaviors. Employers, managers and supervisors who actively and vocally support safe production and put money and resources behind that support are less likely to get pushback from employees regarding safe behavior.
If you really want behavioral change, employees have to see the value of change. They have to believe they can change. They have to know how to change. They have to practice, because behavioral change doesn’t happen from one exposure. And the new actions have to be reinforced through acknowledgment, celebration and external monitoring.
“Real change happens inside out,” Eckenfelder adds. “People get better because they change their attitudes, not because there is pressure placed on them from the outside.”
BBS and Beyond
The original basic concepts of BBS – pointing out to employees how they contribute to a safe work environment by informing them when they are performing safe or unsafe acts – can be an essential part of a system that contributes to a healthy safety culture.
And encouraging all employees to take an active, thinking role in their safety and the safety process is a step in the right direction.
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