Is behavior-based safety right for you?

April 28, 2000
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With the mushrooming popularity of behavior-based safety showing no signs of abating, you might be wondering if your company should get involved. Before moving forward, I suggest you take a long look at whether your operation is ready. Ask yourself these questions:

1. Do you have a sound system in place?

In a good safety management system, personnel at all levels feel responsible for safety and engage in activities to promote it:
  • Management leads the way by setting safety goals, holding people accountable for their performance, communicating periodically on safety, and providing needed resources.
  • First-level supervisors or team leaders participate by conducting activities such as inspections, safety meetings, and incident investigations.
  • Hourly employees contribute through inspections, committee work, and safety orientation for new employees.

A site with a high-functioning safety management system is more likely to have two important prerequisites for a successful behavior-based safety effort: good physical workplace safety and management-employee trust.

Perhaps your site already does a good job with safety, but your safety record has hit a plateau. There is ample documentation of sites that have used behavior-based safety to improve on an already good safety record.

If you find some serious deficiencies in your management leadership, supervisor/team leader participation, and/or employee involvement, consider working on these fundamentals. It’s much easier to walk before you run.

For a site that lacks a sound safety management system, a behavior-based safety effort is revolutionary. Since BBS alone cannot produce long-term safety results, effective “traditional” safety processes must be built along with the BBS process. This kind of Herculean effort is only possible when management is truly committed to making the revolution succeed.

2. Are you ready for new roles?

Sites with a solid safety foundation find behavior-based safety to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Everyone at the site is already accustomed to contributing to safety, and more prepared for new levels of involvement.

Consider these typical roles in the behavior-based safety process:

Are your managers ready to: Commit substantial personnel time for BBS training, meetings, and observations?

Review the process and data generated by it?

Communicate their support for the process?

Recognize the achievements of individuals and groups?

Authorize safety improvements identified by the process?

Are first-level supervisors/team leaders ready to:

Ensure that observations in their area are conducted as scheduled?

Discuss BBS data for their area at regular meetings?

Use the process to make appropriate safety improvements in their area?

Are your hourly employees prepared to:

Spend time away from production work to observe peers and give feedback?

Serve on committees that design and manage the process at the site?

Accept the “culture change” needed to support peer-to-peer observation and feedback?

These kinds of activities will be much easier to implement successfully at a site where a framework of management leadership, regular supervisor/team leader participation, and meaningful hourly employee involvement in safety already exists.

I’m not saying a site’s safety management system needs to be “perfect” in order for behavior-based safety to succeed — the initiative should itself trigger improvements to the safety system. And there might be times when it makes sense to implement BBS in the face of deficiencies, such as when there are executive demands to “turn safety around” following a crisis. Still, it’s more realistic to expect behavior-based safety to help fine-tune an already good safety system than to lead the way for major construction on a system that’s close to ground zero.

3. Are you committed?

Some sites that are not ready for behavior-based safety will try to implement it anyway without the commitment needed to revolutionize safety. That’s the danger when any management trend becomes popular. Organizations are tempted to “give it a whirl” simply because everyone else seems to be doing it, or in the hope that it offers an easy answer to a difficult problem.

Sites that dabble with behavior-based safety when they aren’t ready will almost certainly fail. And the cost of failure is steep: lots of wasted time and energy and a loss of confidence in the site’s ability to effectively manage safety.

Critics of behavior-based safety look at these failures and proclaim BBS inherently “bad.” The real question is not whether it’s inherently “good” or “bad,” but is it right for this particular site at this particular time?

To use an analogy, a hammer in the hands of a vandal can do a lot of damage. In the hands of a carpenter, it can build something valuable. Like the hammer, behavior-based safety is a tool whose value depends on using it the right way.

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