Behavior-Based Safety

Behavior-based safety (BBS) strategies started spreading through organizations about 20 years ago and have been a hot topic ever since. Like anything, its had a fare share of criticism over the years, but more importantly it has proven to be a key factor in improving safety for thousands of organizations around the globe.

It is in our human nature to have a thirst for knowledge and an understanding of human behavior. BBS puts itself in a whole new realm of studying and understanding human behavior. The Cambridge Center For Behavioral Studies states “the application of behavioral research to the solution of human problems is building and demonstrating the first effective and reliable technology of behavioral change in human history.”

“ALL men by nature desire to know” –Aristotle

There have been many experts that have attempted to define behavior-based safety over the years, but a clear-cut definition is still up for discussion.

What is Behavior-Based Safety?

Behavioral safety is the application of behavioral research on human performance to the problems of safety in the workplace

-Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies

The truth is BBS is a label applied to everything from safety incentive tokens to some very rigid and structured processes. Many of these processes have evolved over the years, and the consultants who designed them have changed their positions about some basic issues. Putting a single label on all these varied methods is misleading and inaccurate

-Terry Mathis, ProAct Safety

Behavior-based safety is a variety of programs that focus on worker behavior as the cause for almost all workplace accidents

-J. Frederick, The Steelworker Perspective on Behavioral Safety

…the phrase behavior-based safety refers strictly to the use of applied behavior analysis methods to achieve continuous improvement in safety performance

-Thomas R. Krouse, author of The Behavior-Based Safety Process

How It Works

Regardless of which definition you choose to focus on as you look at your own BBS initiatives, the process is fairly clear. Keeping the following basic steps will help overcome many of the negatives that have been associated with BBS throughout its history.

  • Behaviorally specify the desirable performance- If you want to improve safety in specific areas, you must first specify as behaviorally as possible, those practices. The process of specifying specific behaviors for good behavior gives you a foundation that can be measured against other behaviors.
  • Measure safety performance- After you have established a baseline for safe workplace performance, it is important to periodically sample and measure safety performance against those criteria. You can then log and track the performance for each workplace.
  • Shape safe performance through feedback and consequences- Research shows the power of consequences is a powerful tool for teaching, building and shaping performance improvement. Feedback on workplace performance is one of the most common and effective tools used in BBS. When done correctly, performance feedback will produce learning and behavioral changes — often very dramatically.

What Can Go Wrong

In a perfect world everyone has perfect open communication and believes in the system, both systematically and ideologically. However, there are always outliers that fail to understand why or how a system works. Sometimes this is a result in poor training or simply a break down in communication somewhere along the way. It is important to keep in mind some of the following common things that go wrong in BBS and what you can do to avoid them.

  • The Blame Game-  Believing, teaching or assuming that most accidents are caused by unsafe behaviors of workers is a negative foundation to work off and ultimately leads to instant animosity towards safety.
  • Confronting- BBS is not about eliminating unsafe behaviors by worker-to-worker confrontation. This is almost always ineffective in producing a change in behavior.
  • Idealism- BBS is not the night and shining armor that will replace all other safety efforts.
  • Punishing- It is never OK to use punishment as a means to shape behavior.
  • Isolationism- BBS should involve everyone. Keeping management omitted from the process is a major misconception in BBS.
  • Exclusion- Excluding unions in the decision to implement a behavioral approach can also have a negative impact moving forward in your BBS process.
  • Inflexibility- There is no one way to do certain things in every site. Each site possesses unique characteristics that might make it impossible to implement a method from another site, even though it might have been successful there.

End Result

Whether you’re trying to implement a behavior-based safety approach for the first time or trying to re-implement into other methods your struggling with, the point is, when done correctly BBS can help. Behavioral safety programs have produced significant improvements in safe performance, major reductions in workplace injuries and illnesses as well as help sustain lean methods like 5S and Kaizen.

Part of behavioral safety is that it shares a concern with human behavior and safe performance in the workplace, but it’s even more than that. It is the application of behavioral research on human performance to the problems of safety in the workplace.

Information from parts of this post can be credited to the following:

Unions and Behavior Based Safety: The 7 Deadly Sins by Terry Mathis

Introduction to Behavioral Safety from the Cambridge Center For Behavioral Studies

Additional Resources