Over the years, my colleagues at Safety Performance Solutions and I have learned, often the hard way, what it takes to translate the principles of behavior-based safety into effective action plans and long-term improvement. This article points out seven common barriers that can limit your chances of success. In fact, these pitfalls are universal in nature; you should watch out for them when implementing almost any type of program in the workplace.

Failing to teach principles

Let’s consider how safety programs are typically rolled out. A corporate official, often the safety director, learns about a new program at a conference or through advertising. Appropriate materials -workbooks, videotapes, and a facilitator’s guide, for instance- are ordered. An outside consultant or trainer might be hired to teach procedures to certain personnel. These employees then train others while on the job. And so a new safety program is born. But to many employees this is just another temporary fix, designed to reduce recordable injuries and make management look good. They don’t believe it will work, and wait for the next "flavor of the month" to come along.

This cynical attitude occurs when people are not taught the principles, rationale, research, or corporate mission behind a program. They are just shown how to do it, perhaps by a co-worker who has just learned himself. I’ve heard, for example, that some behavior-based safety consultants advocate teaching observation and feedback procedures to a select few employees, expecting that the steps will eventually spread throughout the organization.

But in a Total Safety Culture everyone participates because everyone understands the principles behind observation and feedback.

You see, when people grasp the theory underlying a method, they develop their own belief system to rationalize why they should comply. They can also use the flexibility of general principles and guidelines to achieve goals in the manner best suited for their job. Finally, when employees make these personal contributions it helps overcome the next barrier you can encounter.

Lack of perceived ownership

Companies often buy copyrighted safety programs. Of course they can’t stamp their own name on them, and therein lies a problem.

Employees can and do reject these commercial canned approaches because they feel no personal ownership.

When employees learn and come to believe in the principles underlying a program, they willingly customize procedures for their work culture. They give the program its own label, and work to keep it relevant and evergreen. Perceptions of ownership and commitment help avoid the third common pitfall in safety programming.

Insufficient worker involvement

How can we get more people actively involved in our safety program?"

I hear this question time and again at seminars. It’s obvious to most of us that safety is not the sole job of the plant safety director, but a shared responsibility among all employees. After all, line workers and operators are the true safety experts. They know where daily hazards lie, and how to avoid them. They also know who takes risks, and with proper training they can increase safe behaviors and decrease risky behaviors of co-workers.

We need to be constantly thinking about how to maximize employee involvement -along every step of the way in devising and implementing safety programs.

Each of the seven points in this article relates to engaging employees in the process. For example, a program attracts more participation when it’s perceived as founded on the right principles, customized and owned by the work force, and fueled by a proactive need to achieve rather than a reactive need to avoid failure.

Regarding this last point, employees should be encouraged to participate with positive consequences -such as personal recognition, group celebrations, and trinket rewards- and never forced with threats of punishment, most often in the form of "discipline."

Invisible top-down support

Whenever a company launches a new safety program, some amount of management support is implied. If nothing else, management is bankrolling the expense of the endeavor. But it’s critical that managers and supervisors get personally involved. They need to talk about their own understanding and belief in the principles. And they must recognize individuals and work teams for accomplishing program objectives.

When I’m at a company to "kick off" a behavior-based safety effort, it’s common for the plant CEO to introduce me. It’s also common for this VIP to turn around and head back to his office after I take the stage. Even if his introduction expresses support for behavior-based principles and processes, actions speak louder than words. His quick exit will signal a lack of personal commitment to some employees. I’ve noticed when the CEO and key supervisory staff sit through my kick-off presentations, program implementation is usually more effective and the benefits are more long-lasting.

Too few champions

Managers and supervisors who willingly sit through a series of three consecutive, two-hour presentations to launch a behavior-based program throughout a plant are making a statement to employees. And this won’t be the only display of their commitment and leadership. They are champions of the process. Leaders like this are needed throughout an organization -especially at the operator level- for a process to be sustained over the long haul. When a few key individuals believe deeply in the principles and procedures being implemented they "walk the talk" and make sure the program continues.

I’ve seen no better way to develop champions of a process than to: ·

  • Teach potential leaders principles and procedures; ·
  • Teach them how to relay the information to others; and ·
  • Provide them opportunities to teach colleagues and co-workers.

When people teach, they develop optimal understanding, commitment, and ownership for the principles and procedures being discussed. Teaching develops internal mental scripts that support the material being taught, and this translates to behaviors that set the right example.

Confusing goals with purpose

Champions of behavior-based safety understand the difference between a purpose and a goal. Purpose reflects the overall mission of a safety program; a goal defines a specific outcome targeted with a particular activity or process.

For example, the purpose of a safety program might be to achieve a Total Safety Culture and experience no injuries. Goals are used to keep the mission on track. Achieving a goal should be celebrated because it reflects progress toward the ultimate aim. Indeed, overall success is demonstrated by the number of goals that are reached.

Confusing program goals and purpose can drain the life out of a safety program. A champion of behavior-based safety recently told me that he feared for his job because his boss didn’t understand this distinction. This safety leader felt more pressure to avoid outcome numbers -recordable injuries- than to achieve higher program participation and impact. His motivation, confidence, and optimism was being sapped because he feared being evaluated on the basis of numbers beyond his control. This problem occurs whenever managers disregard the critical distinction between goal and purpose, expect quick-fix solutions to large-scale problems, and fall victim to the next pitfall.

Poor measures of success

Confusion between purpose and goal is especially prominent in safety because numbers -total recordable and lost-time injuries- are the standard measure of success. In fact, some companies use these rates as the sole determinant of success. Safety awards, promotions, and pay increases can hinge on these outcomes.

Judging safety performance solely on injury rates has several drawbacks, including the fact that numbers can be readily manipulated to "look good." Employees often hide an OSHA recordable, perhaps to win a safety reward based on remaining injury-free. It’s even possible to report that a lost-time injury happened off the job. Supervisors and safety directors might actually encourage such cheating to influence the numbers on which their bonus depends.

Once employees discover attempts to hide injuries they no longer trust the system, nor believe that they can control the organization’s injury rate. Obviously, this does little to support a safety program.

Behavior-based safety provides opportunities to systematically track a variety of success indicators. In fact, the ability to objectively and continuously measure program impact is a special strength of behavior-based safety. As I’ve discussed in prior articles for Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, the progress of a behavior-based program can be assessed by recording and tracking numbers of behavioral observations, percentage of employees volunteering to be observed, the number of coaching sessions conducted per week, and the percentage of safe behaviors per critical behavior category or per work area.

This is only a partial list of process measures. Achievable goals can be set for these indices, and when employees see that they are making progress toward reaching the goals it boosts their belief that they can make a difference. This increases feelings of program ownership, and commitment to keeping the process going.

I haven’t given you a complete list of roadblocks to effectively implementing a safety program. But these seven pitfalls are key factors that determine if teaching the principles and procedures of behavior-based safety will lead to long-term and large-scale success.