A behavior-based safety (BBS) process’s focus is on employee behavior during tasks or in reaction to surrounding environmental events – equipment failures, process breakdowns, poor lighting or other work conditions. When developing a BBS process there are four main parts to implementation process: Define and communicate the purpose of the process; train how observations should be conducted; train and demonstrate how feedback should be delivered; and define what will be measured and how often.

Defining and communicating purpose

Defining and communicating the purpose of a new process or initiative is imperative to obtain buy in and commitment from team members at all levels of the organization. When team members understand the purpose of a new initiative it adds value to the process which creates an incentive for team members to participate.

Define what the organization is trying to accomplish. Give specific examples that apply to each department or location that will be participating. Explain how each department and employee will benefit from their participation and define the role each team member has in the process. Making the process “relevant” is key to keeping team members engaged.

It is also crucial for employees to understand this is not a “blame the worker” exercise. The objective is not to find fault and discipline at-risk behaviors. Safe behaviors should be noted and recognized. The actions of supervisors and managers should also be accounted for.

Training on conducting BBS observations

Behavior-based observations are different from compliance based observations in that they focus strictly on how the team members are performing a task. The observer’s focus is on the behaviors; looking at “how” an employee performs a task and “how” they react to situations in their work environment.

Deciding on what tasks to observe should come from analysis of incident and near-miss data to identify tasks that are the highest risk. Review of incident and tasks that are inherently dangerous can be a good start to identify where the BBS process should start.

Selecting specific tasks to be observed is a better approach than having vague statements such as “Line of Fire.” Most observers will observe what they assume is the “line of fire” instead of focusing on the items that need the attention.

Training on feedback

Along with training an observer on “what” to observe, the observer must learn how to provide feedback to those they are observing. Feedback can be a challenge when fellow team members are not accustomed to discussing workplace behaviors. Many safety cultures are accustomed to only providing negative feedback such as “you cannot do it that way” or “you are doing it wrong.”

In a BBS observation process, the feedback must be positive and engaging to help get an understanding of WHY a person is performing a task a certain way. An example of good feedback is: “I see you are lifting the pallet over your head when you move it from the stack onto the line. Is there a reason you are doing it that way?” This question is important because during the feedback process, observers may discover process or resource deficiencies are factors in creating the opportunity for the unsafe acts.

Maybe there is a lack of space, lack of tools or equipment, etc. The feedback then continues: “I only ask because lifting above your shoulder has been known to cause shoulder problems. I wonder if we can come up with a solution to eliminate the need to lift it overhead.” In this type of feedback, there is no blame; it is simply a genuine effort to understand why the employee does what they do and to educate them that the current process could have a negative effect on them. The last question allows for the employee to be part of the solution. Getting employees involved in the solution will create ownership in the process.

Define metrics & remove barriers

When you decide what tasks and areas will be observed, goals should be set. An example of a goal can be reduction of incidents. Once you collect the results of the observations and feedback, you need to determine how to respond to the data. Review the data and determine what your barriers to success are. Some examples of barriers are lack of training, lack of tools and resources, tools in poor condition and culture. Once a barrier is determined, create action items to ensure the barriers are addressed.

Measure if the goal has been impacted by the observations, in this case reduction of incidents. Determine if the feedback and the elimination of barriers have caused a decrease in incidents. It is recommended to also measure the number of barriers addressed and determine if the same barriers may apply to other areas of the work environment. Sometimes, an action item that was created for one area, such as implementing a preventative maintenance program on tools, can have a positive impact on the organization as a whole.

As you prepare to implement a behavior-based safety observation process keep the most important factor front and center — behaviors:

  • Focus your initiatives on behaviors -- not people. Make it about improving the process and keeping people safe.
  • Steer clear of placing blame. It has the potential to create more conflict and future issues.
  • Create a safety culture where employees feel safe speaking up about inadequate resources or lack of resources.
  • Front end employees are the only ones who truly “know “what the work area conditions are and what it takes to make the work more efficient and safe 
  • Engage employees to be a part of the solution. BBS is not about observing and lecturing. It’s problem-solving. As Henry Ford said, “coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, and working together is success.”