What happened to the "behavior" buzz?

September 30, 2002
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Behavior-based safety, which has enjoyed a profitable run of popularity as the "in" thing to do in safety stretching back to the mid-1990s, shows signs of losing steam - or changing its focus and identity. Many BBS consultants now prefer to talk about "performance" instead of behavior. At the American Society of Safety Engineers meeting in Nashville this past June, BBS pioneers Behavioral Science Technology had its booth plastered with posters proclaiming: "What the heck is Integrated Performance Excellence?". BST's new slogan: "Connecting people and systems."

What's happening?

Our latest White Paper survey shows behavorial safety to be a training priority for about one-third of readers. Training companies like J.J. Keller and DuPont have backed off from promoting BBS products. "Soft stuff" doesn't sell, they say. A recent poll of ASSE chapter presidents concluded that behavioral safety techniques will fade from use because long-term results have never been proven.

"The big boys (large companies) are looking for the next thing in safety," says a marketing consultant working for one of the behavioral firms. "They say, 'Yeah, we've done behavioral safety. It's just one tool.' They're looking for the next thing, but they don't know what it is."

"Professionals with 15 years or more of experience are looking for something new, something they don't already know about," says ASSE's President, Mark Hansen.

Something new doesn't come along every day in safety. Certainly not OSHA standards any more. And behavior-based safety was no overnight sensation. It started in the late 1970s, when an in-house program was developed at Procter & Gamble. BST started out in 1981.

Back then OSHA was in its glory, issuing sweeping standards mandating hazard communication and hearing conservation programs, for example. Compliance was clearly job one. Then Bhopal blew up in 1984 and attention shifted to chemical safety and emergency response. Later, asbestos fever swept the nation, fed a media frenzy and led to federal laws. All of this kept the klieg lights off BBS.

On a roll. . .

When OSHA rulemaking effectively disappeared in the 1990s and environmental anxieties calmed, the behavior-based bandwagon began to roll, helped along by a booming economy that bankrolled those five- and six-figure BBS consulting contracts and the "star power" of speakers and authors such as Dr. E. Scott Geller, Aubrey Daniels, and BST co-founder Dr. Tom Krause.

But imagine if OSHA had succeeded in the '90s in setting rules mandating seat belt use and other vehicle safety measures, indoor air quality programs, generic safety and health program requirements, and ergonomics programs. It would have taken safety and health pros back to the '70s in a mad compliance scramble, with little or no time or money left for BBS.

As it turns out, 1998 was the high-water mark of the BBS "fad," according to Krause. In '98, ASSE drew more than 900 attendees to a two-day symposium on behavioral safety, far exceeding expectations. The cover of ASSE's journal, "Professional Safety," in August 1998, captured the moment: "Focus on Behavior-Based Safety."

At the same time, ISHN's annual White Paper survey indicated that one out of every two readers was making behavioral safety a training priority.

Krause looks back at the fad and calls it a "giant pain," with prospective clients calling for all the wrong reasons, he says. Someone would say their CEO wanted 80 plants implemented in three months and was inviting all the major BBS consultants to come in and bid, Krause says. They had really no idea what BBS was about, confusing it with attitudes and culture concepts; then they took low bids and got shoddy results, "which muddied the water for everyone," he says.

"Now we get fewer inquiries, but they're asking smarter questions," Krause says. "It's a whole different environment."

Scott Geller, a BBS market driver unto himself with his books, videos, audio cassettes, speeches, seminars, and yes, monthly columns in ISHN, attributes any flagging interest in BBS to "the novelty effect." "Pros say, 'It's about time for something new. We need something new.' So you see interest in things like Six Sigma. It's flavor-of-the-month thinking."

Geller also wonders if some pros have turned against BBS out of job security concerns.

"I think some see a shift of perceived power, with line workers going to conferences instead of professionals. The legacy of behavior-based safety has been to get the line workers involved. It's not just top-down safety guys doing investigations and setting and enforcing rules anymore. BBS has opened up the safety domain to non-safety people. So, yes, I think there's some job security fears, some defending of turf. Some safety pros also have a bias to engineering controls."

From the field. . .

Pros in the field offered these thoughts about BBS's current state:

  • The bubble burst when BST changed its focus. The company went from talking about unsafe acts to organizational barriers, a wide umbrella covering many safety issues, such as personal factors, personal choice, rewards and recognition, work conditions and equipment.

    Krause admits: "We found the frequency of personal choice - doing or not doing a certain behavior - as a barrier to safety to be much lower than we thought." Facility and equipment barriers were cited almost twice as often as personal choices in a study done by BST of 13,000 observations.

    But Krause contends it's wrong to say BST is now "only going after equipment, not behaviors." All barriers still lead to what he calls enabled (personal choice) and non-enabled (beyond a worker's control) behavior, which must be identified and traced back to the source, which then is fixed.

    "We haven't changed our position. We've changed how we talk about it," based on our research findings, says Krause. He also admits that the language of behavioral safety has alienated some unions, and he's trying to explain his methods and concepts in ways unions find acceptable.

  • Most conferences are infomercials. Many, not all, are filled with "experts" more interested in arguing about terminology and promoting their own BBS programs, says safety pro Randy DeVaul.

  • Many large corporate BBS clients underestimated the time and resources needed to succeed. They have gone into low maintenance mode with BBS programs. "Corporate America is too impatient to really expend the effort needed," says one professional.

  • Smaller companies have gone the economy route. They send staff to BBS seminars and then implement their own programs. This DIY strategy is helped along by the historic culture of safety pros liking to get things done by swapping programs and using freebie networks.

  • Pros realize that BBS is only one tool in the toolbox. It's one element of a program rather than the silver bullet. Krause at the Nashville ASSE meeting in June said in a speech that BBS is but one of eight to twelve key elements of a safety program, perhaps applied to more than one of those elements, but still only one tool in the safety arsenal.

  • BBS became a commodity. Like all products at some point in their life cycle, BBS lost its mystique and trickled down to the masses. This is nothing new in safety: Remember when back belts cost $60 a piece?

  • It's not only safety pros who are after something new. Long-time BBS stalwarts like Geller and Krause are on to new subjects. At the ASSE Nashville meeting, Geller gave a technical presentation on research methodology using terms like "casual inference," "co-variation," and "time-order relationships." Not exactly the old observation and feedback stuff. Michael Topf, another consultant who has sat in on BBS panels with Geller and Krause, talked at ASSE on the differences in training Baby Boomers and Generation X workers. Krause in his talk said it's time to target the "working interface" where behaviors and facility conditions meet.

    It ain't over

    Don't consign BBS to safety's dust bin yet.

    "Our phone is ringing off the hook," says Melanie Bradshaw, director of marketing and business development for IPTi, a behavior-based safety service that targets mid-size companies with less costly programs. Referring to her lower rates, she says, "We're not out to be millionaires, but we're doing very well."

    Says another consultant: "We're targeting companies with 400 employees. The top end of the market is saturated. Plus, the rates have been too high." Smaller BBS consultants offer day rates ranging from $1,200 to $2,500, and plenty are out there flying below radar.

    "There are dozens of us out there," BBS consultant David Sarkus says. "Behavior-based safety is doing well and has room to grow especially within smaller organizations and outside the United States."

    Indeed, more work is occurring overseas. Sarkus has been to conferences in Malaysia and Singapore, and has been invited back. Geller and his consulting partners at Safety Performance Solutions have traveled to South Africa, Australia, and the Far East. BST has had an office in Europe since 1994, and is conducting seminars this year in Singapore, Sydney, and Johannesburg with affiliate partners.

    It's a global market now, and even in the states there is still room for BBS to expand. Whenever Scott Geller speaks, he asks how many in the room are hearing him for the first time. "Always, 75 percent of the hands go up," he says. And that's after he's given probably 50 speeches a year for the past five years, he estimates.

    New niches, new terms

    Mature products need new niches, new spins. So BST and others promote the old observation and feedback methods for new applications in performance management, health and wellness, quality, and coaching. BST says it's ready to help with safety cultures, safety systems and safety processes.

    "The focus has changed from the worker to improving the system," said Krause at the Nashville meeting. That's because research BST has done with clients finds that facilities and equipment and management systems are far more frequent causes of at-risk behavior than a worker's personal choice of behavior, said Krause.

    Another example of expanding BBS's focus: Marsh, the risk insurance unit of Marsh & McLennan that recently bought Aubrey Daniels's safety division, boasts of using BBS to "help the maintenance teams increase machine running time" and "to improve delivery times and increase customer satisfaction."

    The language of BBS is changing, too. Krause writes on predictors of operational excellence and the need to focus on that "working interface." No longer are BBS ads and articles filled with references to that inflammatory word, "behavior." Now BST ad copy explains that accidents "can happen any time people interact with equipment and systems."

    "Many employees believe that the term 'behavior-based' safety conjures up more of the idea of finding fault with workers," says safety professional DeVaul.

    Says Geller: "It's really about changing people. It's human factors. It really should be called people-based safety."

    Someday behavior-based safety concepts will be integrated into operations to the point that the idea of BBS as a stand-alone safety tool will "fade into the woodwork," predicts Krause.

    Interesting. BBS's scope expands as its old identity disappears. Sounds like what is happening today to the role of many safety and health professionals in a broader sense, as they become generalists instead of cops, with the goal of being integrated into mainstream business operations.

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