Behavior-based safety has been practiced since the Ford Motor Company used it to increase seat belt usage in 1970s. Controversy has dogged it ever since, especially in the 1980s and 1990s when the BBS bandwagon attracted a small army of consultants.

Organized labor and worker rights activists protested long and loud that BBS was nothing more than a blame the worker tactic. Thousands of businesses spent millions of dollars implementing BBS programs because they believed it was a way to involve workers in their own safety and it was “the next new thing” in safety.

On Wednesday, June 23, a plenary session at ASSE’s Safety 2017 drew between 4,000 and 5,000 attendees to a spirited discussion on “BBS at cross roads.” What puts BBS at a cross roads in 2017? It’s the rising popularity of Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), called by some the anti-BBS initiative. HOP holds that human error is inevitable and should be expected. The organization of work and management systems must be vigorously in place to minimize mistakes and prevent their recurrence.

The open forum dialog featured Dr. E. Scott Geller, psychology professor at Virginia Tech and a senior partner with the consultancy Safety Performance Solutions defending BBS; and Dr. Todd Conklin, senior advisor to the associate director, Los Alamos National Laboratory, taking up the mantle of HOP. Both were accompanied on stage by clients using BBS and HOP respectively, and both were passionate in their views – to the extent that at the end of the session one attendee asked Drs. Geller and Conklin if there was anything the two could agree on. Putting their beliefs behind, the two hugged after the end of the session.

Interestingly, the town hall forum was moderated by Dr. Tom Krause of the Krause Bell Group consultancy, one of the pioneers of BBS as a co-founder of Behavioral Science Technology, Inc. (BST) in 1979. Dr. Krause has written in recent years that BBS should “evolve to a new species” and “the truth is, BBS is a mixed bag.”

“If your organization’s position on BBS is the same now that it was 5 or 10 or 20 years ago you are out of date,” writes Dr. Krause. “My colleagues and I established the effectiveness of BBS at reducing recordable rates. We also found that leadership and culture were critical variables and developed models to assess and improve them.

“From my perspective, BBS has been rightly criticized, and also improperly maligned; it has failed to evolve quickly enough, and the research that established it as effective in the first place has been largely abandoned. BBS has become over-commercialized, made into a commodity, over-sold and over-priced, and the original principles that it was built on have too often been forgotten. It is clear that unless major changes are made, BBS will gradually decline and eventually die,” writes Dr. Krause.

Dr. Geller has indeed made changes in his vision and execution of BBS. In recent years he has written and spoken extensively on Actively Caring for People (AC4P), which he calls humanistic behaviorism. AC4P goes beyond strict behaviorism to encompass humanism, as typified by Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” According to Dr. Geller, Maslow positioned self-transcendence at the top of his hierarchy. At this level people go beyond their self-interests and perform AC4P behavior, according to Dr. Geller, such as reporting a safety hazard or giving coworkers BBS feedback about their safe and/or at-risk behavior.

Dr. Geller also advocates embracing and practicing empathy. With empathy comes mutual understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of assignments and/or recommendations for change, he says.

So BBS has evolved. Certainly self-transcendence and empathy were not terms associated with BBS in its heyday.