What Behavior Based Safety (BBS) Is And What It Is Not.

BBS theory has been around for many decades, but in the past few years it has become increasingly popular among some businesses and with many safety professionals. The phrase Behavior-Based Safety in its strictest sense refers to the use of applied behavior analysis methods to achieve continuous improvement in safety performance. Behavior Analysis is promoted as the scientific study of behavior, with the primary objective being the discovery of principles and laws that govern behavior. I would say, though, that to be truly effective this must include all behaviors, not just those of the front-line worker.

Many proponents of BBS Claim it To Be:

  • An excellent tool for collecting data on quality of a company’s safety culture.
  • A scientific way to understand why people behave the way they do when it comes to safety.
  • When properly applied, an effective next step towards creating a pro-active safety culture where loss prevention is a core value.
  • Conceptually easy to understand but often hard to implement and sustain.

…But Claim It Is Not:

  • Only about observation and feedback.
  • Concerned only about the behaviors of line employees.
  • A substitution for traditional risk management techniques.
  • About cheating, manipulating people, and aversive control.
  • A focus on incident rates without a focus on behavior.
  • A process that doesn’t need employee involvement.

Yet some safety professionals with which I have communicated claim BBS is the only method to use in safety management and injury reduction. Others I have talked with claim that BBS is too flawed to be useful. BBS proponents often state that conditions do not cause accidents, behavior does. In fact, some BBS proponents state that more than 85% of accidents are the result of unsafe acts. This belief seems to stem from Herbert Heinrich’s theories developed in the 1930’s. Personally, I have not found any solid evidence of Heinrich’s “statistics”, yet time and again I see this so-called “fact” used to support the position on BBS. So, the Heinrich myth lives on. But does this mean there is no value to some concepts of Behavior Based Safety? No, I think there is value in BBS when properly combined with other methods.

BBS says safety is about people, and behavior is the challenge. But BBS does not focus on identifying and correcting hazards and is often seen as “carrot and stick”. Critics claim BBS emphasizes the worker without taking the system into account. Another approach to consider is that of using a Safety Management System (SMS) . The SMS uses planning, risk identification, analysis, operational control, directives and processes, and continual improvement. Safety Management Systems focus on hazards (which I believe to be the true source of injuries) and I would suggest that removing or reducing the risk of injury can be more successful than relying solely on BBS.

It’s important to note that an effective SMS is not about regulations or reprimands: it is about systems and using what works for the given situation. It’s also important to realize that there are pros and cons to both SMS and BBS methodologies. Safety management systems will always be flawed to some degree, as you can’t plan and control for every hazard. And systems can be inflexible while behavioral approaches may be more adaptive. However, behavior is hard to understand and change, while hazard identification and correction can be implemented easily in most situations.

Accidents are complex and a concentration on behavior alone can detract from finding other causes. But a focus on systems alone might overlook some behavioral issues; there are things in BBS that may be useful. So what are we to do? We need to understand that there are many causes to accidents other than just behavior. There may be environmental conditions, physical hazards, management & systems, equipment, etc., to consider as causes.

It’s not unusual for an organization to see these two approaches as an “either-or” proposition. While the strong proponents of each (BBS and SMS) may see them as diametrically opposed, this may not necessarily be true. But there is no “canned” solution; each organization should select the components of various theories and systems that work for them.

What Really Works In Keeping The Workplace Safe?
1. Controlling risks at their source.
2. Vigorous enforcement of the law.
3. Treating people with dignity and respect.
4. Using BBS and Safety Management Systems (SMS) together.

A combination of safety management systems and behavior-nurturing systems might better ensure a higher probability of working safely. BBS and SMS can and do work together. But BBS in its entirety and on its own might cause more harm than good, as it has a tendency to cause a level of distrust between management and front-line workers. In my opinion, bringing BBS into a culture where there is no trust can only lead to disaster.

So I would suggest that using caution with behavioral theories is appropriate. We are always learning new things about human psychology, and what we thought was true about human behavior a few years ago may not be true today. Bear in mind also that employees don’t like being “psychoanalyzed” and many unions are strongly opposed to BBS in any form. There is clear value in injury reduction through removing or controlling hazards (conditions). While behavioral modification might work, it can be complex and involved, and often is met with tremendous resistance. It all boils down to using what works. No one system, process, or theory has all of the answers.

There is no doubt this is a complex, controversial, and even divisive subject. To learn more about combining BBS and Safety Management Systems, join me on January 6, 2015 for my next audio conference on this subject. “Behavior Based Safety: What Works, What Doesn’t, And How It Can Help Your Organization” http://www.theindustrycalendar.com/showWCDetails.asp?TCID=1014275&RID=1011610


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Filed under Culture, Safety Leadership, Safety Management Systems

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