Thought Leadership


Behavior-based safety: A critic assesses its shortcomings

July 11, 2012
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climbingRecently I was contacted by a student who is earning his degree in preparation for a career in Environmental Health & Safety. He was given an assignment during his internship to research why Unions oppose Behavior Based Safety (BBS). It seems that in preparing for the assignment he happened across some of my writings that are critical of BBS and he wanted to know why I was so critical of BBS.

This young man described me as one of the few opponents of BBS  he could find. This is troubling on several levels. I know of a growing number of people who are increasingly disenchanted with BBS but they openly tell me that they will not publicly criticize it because of the fanatics who shout down all other opinions or research that does not support their world view.

In other writings, I’ve said the following before, but just to be clear:

  • BBS is based on behavior modification. When I say this, I either get one of two responses: “so what?” or “you’re over simplifying it”. Most behavior modification experiments ignore how people behave in populations, and safety is about how populations behave, not individuals. Nobody has ever satisfactorily answered this criticism and generally dismiss the statement by telling me that I don’t know what I am taking about. Illuminate me.
  • People make mistakes; it’s a biological fact. The reason people make mistakes is NOT because they are being careless. Current theory on mistake making is that the brain deliberately causes us to subconsciously test the safety of adapting by making little experiments. Sometimes we call them discoveries and sometimes we call them mistakes. All the observations, and reminders, and training, and all elements of BBS will not change the fact that people make mistakes, but we spend a fortune trying to; it’s misguided.
  • People take risks, and that’s a good thing. People get up in the morning, they drive to work, they take short cuts, they take risks. Taking risks are a necessary part of the workplace and BBS tends to pretend that it isn’t. We need to do a better job of training workers to take risks appropriately and stop telling them to not take risks when we know that they will.
  • People wander away from the standards. As we perform routine tasks we drift from the standard, BBS tries to address this, but does so amateurishly and ham-fistedly that it is difficult to take it seriously. Basic exercises designed to teach the difficulty in maintaining a standard easily demonstrate the impossibility of sticking to a standard when faced with variability in human behavior.
  • There needs to be a greater focus on protecting people from mistakes. Instead of trying to shape behaviors, organizations should manage the things that tend to cause people to make more mistakes. This approach would not only improve safety but would also improve productivity and quality and other factors as well.
  • One-Size Does Not Fit All. BBS tends to take a one-size-fits approach, there isn’t an industry, environment, or population that the fanatics won’t claim that BBS is the answer, often before they even know the question.

All that being said, I think that there are elements of BBS that can be useful, but not as long as fanatics keep proselytizing BBS at all costs. There is such a strong population who will not listen to anything that does not proclaim the sanctity of BBS that most of the critics of BBS (and there are lots of us) have stopped talking.

Did you enjoy this blog? Did you find it thought provoking? Why not share it on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn or by sending it to friends and colleagues via email.  I would sure appreciated it and I’m sure they would too.

From Phil LaDuke’s personal blog http://philladuke.wordpress.com/2012/

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