Following the classic argument that more accidents are caused by unsafe acts than unsafe conditions, behavior-based safety programs are touted as the best way to prevent or reduce injuries on the job. Since industrial hygiene usually goes hand-in-hand with safety, does this mean behavior-based safety includes a hygiene/health component as well?

I asked several safety and health professionals this question and received a quick "yes" from all of them. I wish they would have hesitated before answering because the correct response takes more thought.

Dan Petersen, a well-known safety professional who specializes in management and organizational behavior, commented on industrial hygiene factors such as physical conditions, health, record keeping, occupational diseases and ergonomics in the January, 1997, issue of Professional Safety. "Defining such efforts as behavior-based is a stretch," he said. Does this mean that behavior-based safety excludes industrial hygiene activities?

Motivation is key to behavior, and it's ironic that in psychological studies the classic approach to motivation is called "hygiene." The hygiene approach attempts to improve the environment through measures such as company policies, supervision, and working conditions.

But classic generally means outdated. Herzberg, a renowned theorist in human motivation in occupational environments, said the hygiene approach by itself is insufficient motivation. Even if a company provides the hygiene factors, Herzberg believed effective motivation also requires "job-enrichment"-challenging work that offers recognition for achievement, as well as professional growth opportunities.

Trying to figure out industrial hygiene's place in behavior-based safety is made more confusing by the debate over what behavioral safety is, and is not. Scott Geller, who writes regularly for ISHN on behavioral issues, has voiced concern about some people promoting wrong or incomplete ideas about the subject. You can find many interpretations.

Let's bring the discussion back to industrial hygiene. First, the idea that most accidents are caused by unsafe acts has its roots in the 1931 Industrial Accident Prevention text by W.H.. Heinrich, in which Heinrich states that 88 percent of all accidents are caused by unsafe acts. The rest are due to unsafe conditions. Most safety and health professionals today accept an 80/20 ratio for unsafe acts/unsafe conditions.

Heinrich never clearly distinguished injuries from illnesses. The question for industrial hygienists is: Do you believe that most occupational illnesses are caused by unsafe-or unhealthy-acts?

I'd strongly argue that the 80/20 figure should be reversed when considering occupational illness. Most such illnesses are caused by unhealthy conditions. I don't mean to diminish the impact that employee behavior can have; rather I want to establish intervention priorities. Regardless of what an employee does or does not do, if you select chemicals and products with lower hazards, properly install and operate ventilation equipment and other engineering controls, administer practices such as medical exams, and ensure proper use of personal protective equipment as a last resort, illness is unlikely to occur.

Steps to control the environment can't be taken without the support of management. Management's risk-based decisions determine whether carcinogens are controlled to the lowest possible level, or only to OSHA standards. Whether allowable noise levels are based on 85 dBA using a 3 dB doubling average, or 90 dB and a 5 dB doubling average. Whether exposure limits are set for all chemicals used in the workplace, or only ones with established PELs and TLVs. If preventing occupational illness and disease is your objective, management's behavior may be far more important than the behavior of employees.

The classic "hygiene" approach using environmental improvements to motivate behavior is not outdated, but you should systematically try to identify, measure and control management's shared mind-set on this strategy in order to achieve your goal.