Introduction: The challenge
Although workplace incident rates have steadily declined by 28% over the last decade, rates for serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) have remained virtually unchanged (1). Further, organizations often focus on “recordables” without adequately addressing, prioritizing, and communicating about incidents (and close calls) with SIF potential. As an example, someone spraining an ankle falling 20 feet from a telephone line is quite different than the same person doing so stepping out of a truck.
Leaders need to reorient their thinking regarding SIFs. Recordables and first-aids should continue to be monitored, addressed, and discussed. However, overemphasizing these metrics does a disservice when SIF potential with incidents (and close calls) isn’t fully considered. Contributing factors that could end or seriously alter someone’s life need to be better vetted.
Leaders also need to use scientific methods to identify and prevent SIFs. The efficacy of behavior-based safety (BBS) to improve safety culture and prevent injuries has been demonstrated for decades (2-5). Unfortunately, BBS has been marketed and packaged in ways that water down its effectiveness. Rebooting and expanding behavioral safety (i.e., BBS 2.0) will maximize SIF prevention efforts.
Traditional BBS typically involves training throughout the organization on the principles and practical applications of behavioral science as applied to organizational safety. This includes themes like the AntecedentàBehavioràConsequence model to explain and redirect behavior and observation checklist development and guidelines for use. When done properly, it also addresses person states, safety systems, and larger safety culture themes that impact behavioral choices at all organizational levels.
The term BBS 2.0 is used to describe the ideal manner in which behavioral safety should be viewed, implemented, and sustained for long-term improvement. In some cases, it represents renewing and rebooting existing BBS efforts. Too often, processes like BBS are framed as packages to purchase to reduce injuries. Leaders may view BBS as a program to reduce injuries that simply needs to be purchased and then executed. When implemented poorly, BBS may come across as “just another program.” This results in perceptions of “flavor of the month” until the next package comes along. Even worse, unintended consequences like perceptions of “blaming the employee” may occur when BBS is rolled out poorly.
Revamping BBS cards and use
BBS checklists are an effective means to identify and reinforce safe actions and address at-risk behaviors. Immediate feedback is provided to the employee and group data is analyzed to determine behavioral trends in various locations. In addition to being highly diagnostic and informative, the ongoing process of identifying and addressing key issues provides something most safety programs can’t deliver: sustainability. Rather than training being a “one and done” exercise, BBS provides a foundation and system for ongoing improvement efforts. It’s not unusual to speak with leaders who’ve been doing BBS for decades.
However, BBS needs to be implemented and maintained with care to avoid common pitfalls, including:
- Tracking the number of observations done instead of the quality of observations. This encourages “pencil whipping” the cards especially when people are held accountable to these numbers. Quotas should be removed with any BBS 2.0 programs.
- Focusing solely on behaviors without acknowledging and addressing system factors that influence behaviors. People may feel like they’re being audited when the emphasis is only on whether or not certain behaviors (e.g., wearing hard hats when required) were conducted safely in the moment. BBS teams should work with employees to identify and correct system factors contributing to risk based on BBS observations.
- Little or no communication following observations makes people wonder what’s happening with the BBS information. People will question “what’s in it for me?” if improvements from observations aren’t shared. Leaders need to constantly advertise system improvements made from employee feedback during the process.
Behavioral trends should be analyzed with checklist data with a focus on system improvements. However, the primary focus with BBS checklists is to increase the quality and quantity of safety conversations. This promotes psychological safety and increased employee engagement. Remember: it’s not an observation without a conversation and BBS is a powerful program to improve safety conversations throughout the organization (6-8).
Typical BBS checklists include behavioral categories like PPE Use, Body Position, and Energy Isolation with corresponding behaviors (e.g., wearing gloves under the category of PPE Use).
With BBS 2.0, checklists are expanded to include more open-ended questions to facilitate discussion and better identify system deficiencies. Examples include:
- What scares you about the job in terms of your own personal safety?
- What else do you need to stay safe?
- Do any procedures need updating?
- Where might the next injury occur?
- What would you change about the job to make it safer?
Adding these open-ended questions facilitates richer conversation. Employees are more likely to feel consulted instead of audited with this approach. Also, system factors contributing to risk are better identified and there’s more emphasis on people over paper.
Call to action
Abandoning BBS programs in favor of new programs is short sided. Rebooting and including larger elements (i.e., BBS 2.0) in a more holistic fashion is intelligent. Also, quotas should be eliminated as an accountability metric. Instead, leaders should hold themselves accountable for BBS 2.0 success by asking each other (in meetings and 1-on-1 discussions) questions like:
- What did we find out this month when talking to employees?
- What positive actions did we recognize and appreciate?
- What challenges did employees bring up that we need to deal with?
- What did we do about it?
- How are we going to advertise improvements from the process?
This type of leadership engagement is far more powerful than quotas or incentives to sustain success. For those struggling with BBS, consider revamping your process with BBS 2.0. When done properly, it will boost safety communication and improve behaviors and systems to prevent SIFs. The discretionary effort it fuels will be an added bonus.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/osh.pdf
Cooper, M. D. (2003). Behavior based safety: Still a viable strategy. Safety & Health, 4, 46-48
Daniels, A. C. (1989) Performance management. Tucker, GA: Performance Management Publications
Fellner, D. J., & Sulzer-Azaroff, B. (1984). Increasing industrial safety practices and conditions through posted feedback. Journal of Safety Research, 15, 7-21
Geller, E. S., & Williams, J. H. (2001) Keys to behavior-based safety from Safety Performance Solutions. Rockville, MD: Government Institutes
Geller, E. S. (1996). Working safe: How to help people actively care for health and safety. Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company
Williams, J. H. (2010). Keeping people safe: The human dynamics of injury prevention. Rockville, MD: Government Institutes.
Williams, J. H., and Geller, E. S. (2016). Actively Caring for Occupational Safety. Book chapter in Applied psychology: Actively caring for people (pp. 301-338), New York: Cambridge University Press.