The ten myths of behavior-based safety

April 11, 2000
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I have read and heard numerous incorrect statements associated with behavior-based safety? The more popular this approach becomes, the more it is misrepresented.

Unfortunately, this can lead to behavior-based safety being misunderstood and misused, which hinders its overall potential.

Let's get the new year off to a good start and set the record straight by dispelling these ten common myths of behavior-based safety:

It's only common sense.

You know this is wrong. The principles and procedures of behavior-based safety have been developed and verified through many years of rigorous research. If a particular behavior-based safety project doesn't work, the problem is not with the principles. It's how the principles are translated for a particular work culture.

It's just a fad.

Misuse of behavior-based safety can lead to failure or less than desired outcomes. If this happens, support for behavior-based safety will wane. This is why it's so important to clear up the misperceptions that cause misuses of behavior-based safety. If we don't communicate what behavior-based safety is really all about, the odds are greater that it will be considered a fad.

It's a magic bullet.

In fact, there is 'magic' involved. Behavior-based safety stimulates and facilitates interdependent teamwork, which leads to innovation and creative synergy. To watch this transformation at work is a magical process. But this magic does not come easily nor quickly. It happens with proper top-down support and bottom-up involvement. Expecting too much too soon from behavior-based safety can result in disappointment and a label of 'failure.'

Employees get the blame.

To talk about 'behavior' sounds threatening to many people, as in "Let's talk about your behavior last night." But the names of the individuals observed in a behavior-based coaching process are never recorded. Behaviors of work groups are examined to identify environmental or system factors that influence behavior. Then we change those factors to improve behaviors.

It's only observation and feedback.

Behavior-based safety coaching depends on interpersonal observation and feedback in order to succeed. But the principles of behavior-based safety are applicable to many other aspects of safety performance, including incident analysis, process evaluation, corrective action, education and training, and the design of incentive/reward programs.

Management is off the hook.

If you implement behavior-based safety with this idea in mind you're destined for failure. Even an observation and feedback process among work teams will fail without proper management support.

And the many other applications of behavior-based safety require managers to be actively involved.

What management measures gets done, and what management recognizes and rewards gets done well.

Environmental fixes aren't needed.

At first glance, behavior-based safety can appear to substitute a behavioral- or human factors-approach for environmental or engineering solutions. But anyone who has implemented this approach effectively knows this couldn't be further from the truth. When at-risk behavior is identified, the focus turns to finding environmental fixes that can reduce or prevent it.

It's 'touchy-feely' psychology.

When you think of the human dynamics of safety, concepts like 'attitude,' 'intelligence,' 'emotion,' "motivation,' and 'self-esteem' come to mind. We see and hear these words used in the media to refer to psychology. Such 'touchy-feely' human factors are only studied objectively and scientifically when they are defined according to observable behavior. So behavior-based safety represents the objective and reliable aspect of psychology. It's as close to engineering as any human factors approach can be.

Attitude change must come first.

Some psychologists who work with the touchy-feely aspects of human dynamics justify their efforts by claiming the focus of their study, whether it's attitude, self-esteem, or intrinsic motivation, must change before behavior can change. Such a notion is contrary to both research and common sense.

For example, when would you feel the emotion of being 'scared' ? before or after running from a large, wild animal? Research and common sense tells us the behavior precedes the internal touchy-feely state. First, you see the animal, next, you run, and then, you experience the fear, emotion.

Likewise, when we contribute voluntarily to a successful process, we adjust our 'attitude' to be consistent with our effort. We act ourselves into the right attitude.

There's no bottom-line payoff.

If most injuries are caused in part by at-risk behavior, then, reducing at-risk behavior must eventually lead to injury prevention and financial benefits.

"But how long will it take," asks the plant manager, "and what's the return on investment?"

The reply should be: "That depends on many factors, including your current injury rate; your particular work system; your readiness to implement a behavior-based safety process; and a bunch of touchy-feely characteristics of your work culture like degree of trust, optimism, belonging, interdependency, and systems thinking."

Money saved by reducing injuries and workers' compensation claims is not the only bottom-line issue here. What about workers' morale, their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment? What about workers' perceived empowerment for safety ? the belief that they contribute to preventing their friends and co-workers from getting hurt?

These are bottom-line feeling states that lead to continuous and long-term improvement in safety, and in both the quality and quantity of production. Yes, these are touchy-feely aspects of human experience, but they do exist inside all of us and they do influence our everyday behavior.

Organizational change

How do we improve these feeling states most effectively in an organization? You know one answer to this important question is behavior-based safety. When people are put in control of a process that visibly contributes to preventing themselves and others from getting hurt, they feel responsible. They go beyond the call of duty to make the process work. Working together this way boosts morale, trust, belonging, and optimism. Obviously, the individuals experiencing these feelings benefit, as does the organization.

Culture change led by individual and group behavior does not come quickly. It takes time, and a continuous commitment from everyone. Management needs to give the kind of consistent support that encourages employee involvement. Understanding the fallacies in the ten common myths reviewed here is a start. That's the bottom-line purpose for my first ISHN article in 1999. Happy New Year!

By E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., Senior Partner, Safety Performance Solutions, and Professor of Psychology, Virginia Tech. Dr. Geller and his partners at Safety Performance Solutions (SPS) help organizations customize behavior-based safety techniques for optimal benefit. For more information, call SPS at (540) 951-7233 (SAFE).

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