Fostering participation in Behavior-Based Safety

January 1, 2007
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“Same ole, same ole!” “Same old stuff!”… These are common reactions we receive when we begin our introduction of behavior-based safety at a facility. Employees have seen program after program come and go. There is a tendency for “whiteboard” enthusiasm at the inception of implementing new programs. Promises are made, high expectations expounded and great intentions are abundant. However, often little follow-through occurs and programs wane and finally die. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of the pitfalls that are inherent in the first stages of bringing something new into a facility.

Perceptions/obstacles

Many behavior-based safety programs are implemented before key workplace issues are identified and addressed, such as trust, communication and leadership, to name a few. It is widely publicized that a lack of trust and flawed communication between employees, supervision and management exists in a high percentage of industry groups today. Participation by employees is a key goal in a BBS program, but it is hard to foster in an environment of low trust and communication levels. Recent findings from the Gallop Organization indicate that lack of trust between supervision and management and a high level of “non-engaged” employees is apparent in a large number of companies.

Strong opposition to BBS has been communicated by industry union organizations. Several position papers have been written. “In a time of major work restructuring and speed up, critics say the focus on individuals at the expense of work environments makes behavior-based safety programs a work hazard that must be eliminated.” (James Frederick and Nancy Lessin, “Blame the Worker,” The Rise of Behavioral Based Safety Programs). These are strong convictions that point to an underlay of distrust. “The Steelworker Perspective on Behavioral Safety,” published by the United Steel Workers of America, is also particularly strong in discouraging BBS programs.

Safety culture surveys say…

Our findings from safety culture surveys indicate the following:

10% of clients — Trust and communications levels good. Process can enhance these elements. Participation is likely to be strong at inception.

85% of clients — Trust and communication issues evident. Process can be used to improve when leadership commitment and follow-through happen. Participation will increase as proof is shown of the aforementioned. 5% of clients — Serious breach in trust and communication levels; to the point that BBS is not advisable until some positive base is reached. It is unlikely that willing, productive participation will take place.

As stated earlier, when there are trust issues in an organization, these are obstacles to a successful implementation of behavior-based safety and can hamper participation. (See “What employees are saying…” sidebar.) How can these obstacles be overcome?

Follow the process

There are a number of critical steps to fostering participation in a behavior-based safety process:
  • Before introducing BBS, arrange for a survey to determine perceptions held by the population of the plant and ask what they would like to see most in their safety process. The benchmark survey of a large population sample should represent all areas of the facility. Anonymity is important initially, especially when cracks in the trust factor exist.
    Utilizing an outside group to conduct the survey and evaluate responses will increase the objectivity and reliability of the survey results. Results of safety culture surveys should be shared with the entire population candidly and openly. This is best done in BBS training by the group who conducted the survey. Training is attended by management/supervision and primary employees.
  • Plan for training of all employees in the BBS. And publish training schedules.
  • Solicit input from the entire workforce in identifying the best safe practices and conditions. Hourly employees are often underestimated. They may not have higher degrees but they live the plant process. One of the most important safety tools is employee intellect and experience. Employee involvement in the creation and application of safety procedures promotes job satisfaction and a safer workplace. Employee job satisfaction tends to rise when given the opportunity to give important input about their jobs. People usually like to talk about what they do! This, in turn, leads to safety compliance and participation.
  • Supervisor leadership ability is essential to all facets of the industrial process. The supervisor is the direct link between management and primary employees. Employees are frequently put into a supervisory role without consideration of leadership experience; they are often assigned their supervisor position primarily because of their job skills. Based on past experience, they then become enforcers. They have to deal with satisfying the needs of both management and the primary workforce, which are oftentimes in conflict. Give supervisors the training and tools required to achieve a balance between the two entities and help them to become advisors as opposed to adversaries.
  • Establish and support a strong “lead team” with resources to allow them to keep the workforce aware of what is happening in the process. Commit to and provide the time required to meet and disseminate information to the plant population. In the same light as supervisor leadership development, informal leaders need to be developed. These are the employees who will coordinate and facilitate the BBS process. They must be armed with the same training and tools as supervisors in regards to leadership.
  • Help prioritize things that need to be fixed; schedule and communicate timetables, including reasons for delay, etc. Recognize that not only safe practices — by everyone — need to be addressed but conditions as well.
  • Encourage a strong communication system between all employees in all directions: up/down, down/up and sideways. The level of participation in a BBS process is proportionate to the level of communication between all levels of employees. A BBS process produces a lot of data and feedback. Unless this information is shared with all employees, its collection is a waste of time.
  • Recognize/reward those who participate in the process, both in-plant and outside (families, community). People do more of what brings good consequences. Celebrate the successes of the process, including the entire population in the celebrations. Participation breeds on positive reinforcement.


Don’t demand

Demanding participation rarely works. The definition of participation implies a “willingness” to become involved. The key is to develop an environment that will foster participation.

Sidebar: What employees are saying…

The following answers are a typical sampling of responses from employees when asked in a survey, “How would you improve safety in your facility?”

“Get more people involved.”

“More recognition for people who are safe day after day.”

“When I tell a supervisor about something that’s unsafe and nothing changes, it makes you want to stop suggesting things. If they would listen and do something, safety would be better here.”

“There needs to be a safety team with representatives from both hourly and management.”

“All they say to us is, ‘Be safe.’ They don’t tell us how or ask us what we think. If they did, we’d all be better off.”

“They tell us NOT to do something and they do it! They need to walk the talk.”

“The plant manager says safety is number one here, but he never even comes out to see what I do out here.”

“There’s supposed to be a disciplinary policy around here but sometimes it’s used and sometimes it’s not, usually when someone gets hurt. And you never see supervisors or managers get written up.”

“The supervisors here tell management what they want to hear; not what’s really happening.”

Source: The Human Side Inc., results from Safety Culture Survey Question No. 11gh, PA

Sidebar: How to address BEHAVIORS

1. Best practices must be identified. Create a checklist for every area of your facility.

2. Example must be set by management and supervision. It is important that leadership “walk the talk.”

3. Hourly employees must be involved and share in safety ownership. This is when change can truly happen.

4. “Almost accidents” (near hits) must be reported and solutions generated.

5. Victories over failures. Measure leading indicators rather than lagging.

6. Involvement of all. A behavioral approach requires the total facility population to be involved to be successful.

7. Observations must be done/measured daily.

8. Recognition is key. Studies show that employees will give more than expected when they are recognized.

9. Specific feedback must be given on a continuous basis and in a timely manner..

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