In its simplest form, behavior-based safety (BBS) can be defined as the programs, systems and resources dedicated to identifying and eliminating unsafe acts or human errors. While the establishment of OSHA and the development of BBS programs have changed the face of safety over the last four decades, recent safety results nationwide are flat.

There seems to be a growing urgency to act on this problem, but many organizations are not sure what to do. Perhaps the time has come to ask the question, “What is beyond behavior-based safety?” Below are a few ideas for moving traditional behavior-based safety programs into the 21st century.

Break safety meeting participants into smaller groups for activities.

Set leadership at the right level

John Maxwell, author and noted authority on leadership, defines a leader as “one with influence over others.” BBS has done a great job of focusing on organizational leadership and encouraging managers, vice presidents and CEOs to become engaged in the safety process. While this is a crucial aspect of leadership, it overlooks the individuals who actually exert the most influence over workers’ choices.

Our work environments have rank-and-file employees who exert great influence over their co-workers. These informal leaders are typically subject-matter experts who excel in their trade; they may be veteran employees or simply charismatic leaders. To reach a new level of safety success, we need to engage both senior leaders and rank-and-file leaders.

Emphasize - get up and do' instead of - sit and listen'

While safety meetings are crucial to eliminating unsafe acts, most organizations are stuck on ‘sit-and-listen’ safety meetings with the result that meetings lack energy and educational value.

The National Safety Council has issued data on adult learning and retention showing that hands-on learning results in retention nearly four times greater than that experienced when learners simply sit and listen. To move beyond BBS, we need to shift to involved safety meeting activities. When preparing for safety meetings, ask some key questions:

  • How can I bring the tools and equipment of the workplace to the meeting - or the meeting to the tools and equipment of the workplace - to get workers involved, instead of merely reading or showing pictures?
  • Can I break meeting participants into smaller groups for an activity?
  • Can I start the meeting with an attention-getter such as a quiz or quick game to immediately engage participants?
  • What motivational activities can I use to build awareness? The answers to these questions will put you on the road to more active safety meetings and results.


Move from rules to relationships

Randy was a tough, hard-to-get-to-know, son of a gun. He had more than 25 years experience and didn’t get along with local management. I had worked with Randy when I was an apprentice; now I was the safety supervisor responsible for nearly 400 linemen, substation workers and gas employees in rural Missouri.

Knowing I couldn’t see everyone in the course of a month, I decided to show I cared by writing each person a personal note on their birthday. For Randy I said something like, “Happy birthday, I really liked working with you back in the day. I always liked your funny stories. Work safe, Matt.” I sent it and forgot about it. About five years later I happened to be in Randy’s show-up location, and there on his locker with the pictures of his wife and kids was a faded piece of paper. I recognized it immediately - it was the note I’d sent him. Family counselor and author Josh McDowell wrote, “Rules without relationship cause rebellion.” If I had needed to talk safety or enforce a rule with Randy, I’m confident he would have listened because he knew I cared. Changing behavior is first about creating a relationship.


While giving a small gift for performing certain safety activities is a commonly used element in a behavior-based employee awards program, these programs frequently become a ‘check-the-box-and-get-a-prize’ system. While safety is a tailor-made vehicle for appreciation and recognition, can we leave behind our check-the-box-systems for genuine recognition and appreciation?

The insightful book, The Invisible Employee, observes that “in an ongoing Gallup survey of more than 4 million employees worldwide, there is remarkable evidence of the business impact of recognition and praise. In a supporting analysis of 10,000 business units within 30 industries, Gallup found that employees who are recognized regularly increase their individual productivity, increase engagement among their colleagues, are more likely to stay with their organization, receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers and have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job.”

Downstream to upstream in real time

Behavior-based safety measurements are more than a review of the injury roster. Although recordable and lost-time injuries are one measurement of safety success, they are not the only measure. Looking at injury data is downstream, or reactive. BBS encourages organizations to look upstream at proactive data like unsafe acts from safety observations, safety audit scores, inspection results, etc. The problem with this proactive data, however, is at least two-fold.

First, it is not widely published throughout the organization and once this data arrives on the desk of senior leaders, it is often outdated. Moving beyond BBS means using today’s technology to make proactive data real time. It hits the desks of safety staff and senior leaders as it happens and is recorded. This way, senior leaders can quickly intervene or can offer recognition for a job well done.

Moving forward

BBS, along with OSHA, was a key driver leading us to our current level of safety results. Today it is time to ask the question, what is beyond BBS…and how can we lead our organizations there?