During the late 1970s, Judy Komaki and her behavioral psychologist colleagues used their methodology in a food manufacturing facility to improve the safety performance by focusing on reinforcing safe behaviors (Komaki, Barwick, & Scott, 1978). This was the birth of behavior-based safety (BBS).

Fast forward nearly 40 years and many BBS processes are still in place and helping create engaged safety cultures. But through misuse and watered-down philosophy, there have been many myths surrounding the effectiveness of a 40-year-old methodology.

Myth one — blame the worker

One entrenched myth is that BBS programs are designed to spy on workers and blame them when things go wrong. Some people and organizations wrongly believe that BBS is founded on Heinrich’s “Causation Theory.”

This BBS myth often touts the ratio of 88-10-2 in which 88 percent of industrial accidents are caused by the unsafe acts of people. Invariably, some companies have latched onto this propaganda, rolled out behavioral programs, and focused exclusively on reducing the risky acts of people at the “bottom” of this pyramid. When this happens, the influences of behavior such as the “people aspects” of work (e.g. stress, pressure, distractions) and “organizational aspects” (e.g. production over safety mindsets, environmental deficiencies, poor communication) are often ignored. The organization is wrongly pushed to “modify the behavior” of the individual worker to fix people and organizational issues.

Myth two — behaviors alone fix everything

Many companies have become so swayed by the behavioral arguments that they have forsaken any and all other inspection/audit programs. Observing behaviors and providing feedback has its place in a comprehensive safety program, but the environment and conditions are important as well. Two examples of where a BBS-only safety process is not ideal:

1. Prior to using scaffolding, a competent person must ensure it is safe to access. This person must assess the materials used to make the scaffold, ensure it is properly constructed and address a wide range of other critical safety aspects. Once it is deemed safe, they can authorize workers to use the scaffolding. Bear in mind that nobody is on or around the scaffolding. If one was only looking at behaviors, how could this observation occur? Once the scaffolding is turned over and workers begin to use it, then behavioral observations are indeed in order to ensure that the safety behaviors built into the system are not circumvented such as by removing guardrail or moving or removing floor planks.

2. While doing a walkthrough of the facility, a number of safety issues were discovered: poor housekeeping, a loose guardrail and oil on the floor. Correcting these issues is important but the BBS checklist doesn’t account for at-risk observations in the absence of people to observe.

Myth three — finite set of behaviors

Another entrenched myth: despite the work environment, the culture of the company or the team dynamics, there is a single pre-determined list of behaviors that will always be applicable and yield positive results.

This is known as “doing safety TO someone” and not “doing safety WITH someone.” Ownership of the critical behaviors that can lead to injuries need to belong to the workers in harm’s way. Employees will tell you which behaviors are important. Additionally, once critical behaviors are analyzed and action plans implemented to address the deficiencies (whether behavioral or systemic), new critical behaviors must be identified and championed. Having a dynamic view of hazards, both from conditions and behaviors, and acting on the information to drive improvement is the only way to ensure positive and sustainable results.

Myth four — employee-only program

Many BBS programs are rolled out and designed as solely a peer-to-peer observation process. Having workers observe each other and offer feedback to ensure a safe work process is good, but it is only the beginning of creating a dynamic and sustainable safety process. Leadership must also partake in the BBS process or nothing will change beyond a system of “counting checklist cards” for the sake of getting a number of observations completed. Management must own both the people aspects (culture and communication) as well as the organizational aspect (providing resources to address issues) of the BBS process. Plus, management must provide coaching and feedback to ensure the BBS process is yielding the desired results.

BBS evolved

To avoid the blame-the-worker myth, organizations need to teach their employees and leaders the fundamentals of BBS. If taught correctly, BBS focusses on reinforcing safe behaviors, identifying antecedents (or activators) that direct behavior, and the potential consequences of performing risky safety-related behaviors. For example, if an employee was observed removing a guardrail on a piece of scaffolding, an antecedent that might direct that risky behavior could be production demands (organizational aspect) to get the task done quickly. Or, by focusing on the potential consequence of removing a guardrail, a BBS observer might identify that it is more convenient to make that change themselves rather than ask for the scaffolding to be reconfigured. A dynamic BBS process does not forsake other inspections in favor of behavior-only observations.

Some organizations roll out their BBS process and keep the original behavioral checklist. In a well-designed BBS process, focused observations are also used to address issues identified from the general observations. Once BBS teams start using their data to identify issues needing improvement, they need their leadershipto provide resources to fix identified issues. A well-designed process includes everyone in BBS, especially leadership.

Behavior-based safety continues to be an effective process for engaging all employees in identifying and finding solutions to issues that could potentially hurt our friends and co-workers. However, to evolve BBS, many of the current myths need to be debunked, the fundamentals need to be taught, and the valuable data needs to be used in order to eliminate death on the job.