Behavior-based safety got its start in industry in the late 1970s, but it's only been in the past several years that the field has really taken off. Last month in Orlando, more than 900 safety pros sold out three hotels for the opportunity to compare and contrast the approaches of leading behavioral consultants in a conference sponsored by the American Society of Safety Engineers. Conferences like this one are becoming increasingly popular selection tools as the number of behavioral consultants grows. No one knows just how many consultants are specialists in helping employers target, mold, and monitor behaviors that are critical to safe workplaces -- estimates run from 20 or so to possibly more than 100. What's clear is the supply of behavioral specialists is expanding to keep up with greater demand. Fifty-six percent of ISHN's White Paper survey respondents said behavior-based training will be a priority in 1998 -- up from 20 percent in 1994. There's a lot at stake when you ask a consultant to come and talk to your employees and managers about concepts such as "observing critical behaviors." Whose behaviors? Why are they critical? What will be done with the reports? Successful programs have cut injury rates significantly, but poorly planned and executed ones can hurt worker morale, trust and cooperation. So before plunking down precious budget dollars -- and investing a lot of time -- in a behavior-based safety consultant, here's what a cross-section of behavioral consultants and their clients have to say about making the best choice for your company.

Checking into backgrounds

Many environmental safety and health folks are uncertain about qualifications for behavior-based safety consultants: Should only someone with a Ph.D. in psychology be hired? What about former managers from industry who have been trained in behavioral theories? Not surprisingly a mix of academic and real-world experience is preferable, according to experts. It's important to have at least one Ph.D. on the consultant's staff to serve as an in-depth educational resource, says Terry Mathis, president of Integrated Performance Technology in Houston, Texas. When Tom Krause, Ph.D., co-founder of Behavioral Science Technology, Inc., started his business 18 years ago, he hired six Ph.Ds. Five turned out to be failures because they were too academic. The sixth is his current vice president of research and development. "We learned that you can be a good psychologist but not a good consultant," he says. "To be a good safety consultant, you need to know how industry works and understand accountability. Possessing a Ph.D. is one valuable qualification, but it is not necessarily an indicator of success." In contrast, Scott Geller, Ph.D., started a successful behavioral consulting firm, Safety Performance Solutions, that has relied primarily on academically trained Ph.Ds. He has concerns about on-the-job behavioral training from former industry people. "They haven't necessarily learned the roots [of behavior-based safety]," he says. What's apparent is the need to go beyond stereotypes when shopping for behavioral consultants. Not all Ph.D.s are jargon-spewing techies. And not all old hands from industry are weak on principles and theories. Get a detailed account of a consultant's previous work experience as well as educational training. And keep in mind some industries require special knowledge. Mathis says he's seen some fledgling consultants have a hard time understanding the complexities of the petroleum and chemical businesses, for example.

Probing for details

Since you can't judge a behavioral consultant solely on the basis of their background, it's important to conduct a thorough interview when meeting with a candidate. Gene Earnest, one of the originators of Procter & Gamble's pioneering approach to behavioral safety some 20 years ago, says you should first define a consultant's basic philosophy about accountability and responsibilities. Ask, "With whom does safety begin?" and, "Exactly who is involved in the behavior-based safety process?" he suggests. If the answers are "management" and "everyone from line workers to maintenance to union representatives," respectively, Earnest says the consultant has potential. Also, listen to how vague or specific the consultant is when describing his work. Says Earnest: "Be sure he looks for specific behaviors, such as a person throwing the disconnect and then locking it out," as opposed to generalities such as "maintaining safe behavior." Other indicators of a poorly prepared behavioral consultant can be as arresting as a neon sign -- if you're listening closely to what they say. Geller offers these reminders:
  • Behavior-based safety is more than just observation and feedback;
  • "Behavior modification" is a term that turns off many employees;
  • Principles must be taught with supportive theory;
  • There is no one "best way" to implement a behavioral process -- every company requires a unique approach

Try to get a sense of how familiar a consultant is with behavioral research, adds Geller, and ask how they learned about behavior-based safety. As with hiring any type of consultant, it's important to ask about past successes and references, says David Sarkus, a behavioral consultant who holds master's degrees in both safety management and industrial psychology.

The search process

This is how Charlie Hart, a senior safety coordinator for an Exxon Chemical plant on the Gulf Coast of Texas, conducted his search: In 1991, the 350 employees at the plant had a total recordable incident rate of 3.93 -- an acceptable figure to some, says Hart, but not low enough for Exxon. He gave five years' worth of injury records to a group of 12 employees who volunteered to attack the problem. In six months, the group came back and recommended hiring a behavior-based safety consultant because current Exxon systems did not address the majority of at-risk behaviors. Employees then began calling clients of ten different consultants worldwide, including one from Germany, asking them about the processes they used and their experiences with the consultants. Within four months, employees narrowed the list down to three and began making site visits. At each location, employees were asked for positive and negative reactions to the consultants they worked with, and what they would change about how behavioral practices were being implemented. Within four weeks, Exxon employees knocked one more name off the list, and the final decision was made after the two remaining candidates made presentations at Hart's facility. When checking out references, look at how much effort a consultant puts into establishing the system versus the time spent maintaining it once it's up and running, says John Domenick of Aubrey Daniels & Associates, a performance management consulting firm. "Most [consultants] I've seen will implement four to five major steps up front with nothing at the end," says Domenick. "There's no staying power to keep it going." Experts offer a final word of advice on shopping for behavioral consultants: Before you make the investment, make sure your workplace is prepared. If the facility itself is not safe, in terms of physical conditions such as tools and equipment, you can run into credibility problems trying to focus attention on employees' behaviors and attitudes, say many consultants. Working conditions must be acceptable, says Earnest.