Category Archives: Culture

Right Tool For The Job: Is It Really A Tired Argument?

Once again, some of the more prolific safety bloggers on sites like LinkedIn are proclaiming that they have “the truth” about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to safety management and injury prevention. A current claim is that some safety management tools just don’t belong in the toolbox of any enlightened safety professional. The position is that slogans or BBS are such old technology that it’s akin to bloodletting; any use of tools like slogans or BBS are only for those that refuse to see the “truth” that these tools are not only outdated but dangerous. Some bloggers go so far as to refer to safety professionals that insist on using any part of “outdated” concepts like BBS as “knuckle-draggers”.

The argument is made that BBS is about blaming the majority of workplace injuries on deliberate and conscious employee behavior and that the intent of BBS is to modify and control the behavior of a population. Perhaps there are some BBS practitioners that believe this, but I don’t think this is so of the more reputable organizations that utilize BBS as one of their tools in injury reduction. In fact, I have never spoken with a BBS proponent or practitioner that did believe this to be true. Those that I have discussed this with understand that the human mind is complex. They understand that we make conscious and deliberate decisions and that we also make unconscious decisions. To throw out all of the concepts of BBS as “snake oil” and to state that there is no place for behavior modification is to say that we have mastered the workings of the human mind and have determined that understanding human behavior is of no value in safety management.

Behavior modification has been used for many years in dealing with changing our lives for the better. It’s used in therapy to help people with addictions; people that are not necessarily making a conscious and deliberate decision to be mired in substance abuse. My understanding is that there are often underlying issues that lead a person to abuse certain substances even though consciously they don’t want to do so. It is also my understanding that behavior modification can help a person better understand WHY they do what they don’t want to do. Am I saying that all safety professionals are equipped to embark on a journey of understanding human behavior and making attempts at behavior modification? No. But there are those that have been educated and trained in this field sufficiently that they can help in leading an organization to use certain concepts of BBS, including observation and feedback, in reducing injuries.

What about safety slogans? Are these entirely useless? Perhaps. I think it depends on the organization’s culture. If there is a culture of trust and respect, I believe that slogans and campaigns can help a team to focus. But in an organization where there is mistrust and fear, slogans could be not only of no value, they could do even more to increase the gap between management and front-line worker.

Only you and your organization can determine which tools are of value to you. A tool like BBS could be beneficial in an organization with a mature, trusting culture, but that same tool in another less-developed culture could be dangerous and damaging. I believe the same holds true for any of the many tools available to the safety professional. Just because another person believes these tools are outdated and don’t belong in ANY safety professional’s toolbox does not mean it is so. Just because those tools are of no value or are dangerous to THAT person does not mean they can’t have value for you and your organization. That decision about what is right for your organization is up to you; not me or any other blogger.


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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”

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Incentives and Indicators

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Culture or Compliance?

Culture or Compliance?

Workplace safety is about many things. The organizational or safety culture is one very important component of effective safety management. There are those that focus on human behavior, while others focus on safety management systems or employee training, and others still that concentrate on ensuring compliance with the multitude of OSHA, EPA, and other safety and environmental regulations.

So which approach is right? There is plenty of research, both old and new, that indicates human behavior is a complex issue and that it does have an effect on safety in the workplace[1].  We also know that safety management systems, properly designed and implemented, can have a positive impact on both injury and cost reduction[2]. Even employee education and training leads to workers being more skilled at their jobs and to better understand how to do those jobs in a safe manner[3]. And then there are the myriad of regulations with which employers must comply. There is even evidence to show that complying with these regulations will improve safety in the workplace[4].

If all of these means have been shown to improve safety, then why would we put all of our resources into just one or two of these methods of reducing injuries in the workplace? Perhaps we shouldn’t.

There are well-known safety professionals in our business that focus on one particular aspect of workplace safety. Is that wrong? I don’t believe so. Each works from their strengths and that benefits all of us. There are people like Shawn Galloway and Terry Mathis of ProAct Safety. They focus on how human behavior impacts safety. They’re very good at it, and I for one have learned a great deal from them. And there are people like Phil LaDuke: well, actually there is probably no one else like Phil…he’s one of a kind. I say that in a positive way. Phil writes things that many safety professionals might not want to hear or think about. Personally, I read Phil’s work because it challenges me to carefully consider why I believe what I do.  Now in these two examples, the people mentioned might have positions which appear to be diametrically opposed, but they both contribute to the safety profession and to helping others improve safety in the workplace.

So what I am trying to say is that one approach is not necessarily the best thing to ensure a safe workplace. The various safety professionals that share their expertise with us are all correct in taking the position that their approach is one that works. It takes an understanding of human behavior, it takes a good safety management system that includes hazard identification and mitigation, it requires effective training, education, and communication about safety, and it requires compliance with the regulations from OSHA, EPA, and other agencies.


[1] E. Scott Geller, Behavior Modification, Vol. 29 No. 3, May 2005.

[2]John Palassis, Education and Information Division, NIOSH, CDC, Presented at 2007 AIHCE Philadelphia, PA, June 6, 2007.

[3] Training Requirements in OSHA Standards and Training Guidelines, OSHA 2254 1998 (Revised).


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