The behavior-based safety concept was developed by H.W. Heinrich in the 1930s and 1940s. Heinrich researched hundreds of insurance reports and concluded that almost 90 percent of industrial accidents could be blamed on employees, or “man failure”.  Based on his findings, Heinrich determined that workers who were causing accidents could have inherited certain traits causing them to be more accident prone. The only way to correct the problem was to observe and change worker behavior. The premise was simple, but resulted in blaming the employee for accidents and not necessarily considering other contributing factors.

 Three problems

Today, industry professionals report that this is an outdated approach that leaves gaps in the safety environment. There are three commonly cited explanations as to why only using the behavior-based style is not effective. The first is the direct blame or responsibility for accidents and incidents. When a program puts the target directly on workers and their actions, you completely lose sight of the second part of the equation: external factors. With 100 percent of the focus on employees’ end actions, external factors such as safety program management, engineering controls, communication and best practices training may be ignored. Without well rounded information, an organization prevents improvements in these areas.

Another common method used in conjunction with behavior-based safety is an incentive program. Depending on how incentives are used, they may negatively affect your safety program. If employees are rewarded for hitting the company quota on injury rates or days without incidents, they may be discouraged from reporting incidents. This can cause near misses to go unreported and put workers’ safety in a fragile state. Incentive programs should be carefully planned and considered before implementing to make sure that they do not discourage employees from taking an active role in safety.

Along with incentives and responsibility, anonymous observation is the third issue that can arise with a 100-percent focus on behavior-based safety. By using anonymous observation of other employees, each employee is responsible to report unsafe behavior conducted by their peers to management. This can cause conflict and peer pressure amongst workers and concern that safety issues are not being addressed. It is critical to encourage employees to report issues without the fear of negative consequences, as well as encouraging them to report good behavior and share ideas for improving workplace safety.

 Creating a safety culture

A safety culture is a broad, organization-wide approach to safety management. A safety culture is the end result of combined individual and group efforts toward values, attitudes, goals and proficiency of an organization’s health and safety program.  In creating a safety culture, all levels of management are highly regarded on how they act toward workers and on a day-to-day basis. Upper management commitment to workplace safety helps workers take it more seriously and translates into a safer work environment for everyone. Responsibility for encouraging the safety culture may start with management, but it trickles down to each individual in the company. Everyone has a part in keeping themselves and others safe.

Organizations with a safety culture show a deep concern for employee well being, and this is reflected in all levels and departments within the organization. The practice of anonymous observation is mostly eliminated and replaced with management taking the time to walk around their facility to monitor and positively reinforce company values for good and bad incidents. Rewards and incentives can still be in place if they are awarded for the right reasons, such as reporting incidents, including near misses. Within a safety culture, leaders garner knowledge from all areas and use that to improve and promote safety at all levels.

One option to assist management with building a safety culture is to appoint a champion at each location. This person is responsible for understanding what it will take to build a safety culture at his or her location, including current hazards, areas for improvement, and necessary employee training for improved safety practices. This person may also gather incident reports and conduct accident investigations. In many organizations, this person may be a safety manager but could also be a human resources representative, a shift manager or facility manager, depending on company resources.

 Culture-building tips

Creating an effective safety culture is an ongoing process and is a large commitment on behalf of the entire company, however, the effort results in a positive attitude toward safety and a reduction in accidents and incidents. Here are a couple of tips from OSHA  to get you started on building a strong safety culture at your organization:

1. Define safety responsibilities: Do this for each level within your organization. This should include policies, goals and plans for the safety culture.

2. Share your safety vision: Everyone should be in the same boat when establishing goals and objectives for their safety culture.

3. Enforce accountability: Create a process that holds everyone accountable for being visibly involved, especially managers and supervisors. They are the leaders for a positive change.

4. Provide multiple options: Provide different options for employees to bring their concerns or issues full-face. There should be a chain of command to make sure supervisors are held accountable for being responsive.

5. Report, report, report: Educate employees on the importance of reporting injuries, first aids and near misses. Prepare for an increase in incidents if currently there is under-reporting. It will level off eventually.

6. Rebuild the investigation system: Evaluating the incident investigation system is critical to make sure investigations are conducted in an effective manner. This should help get to the root cause of accidents and incidents.

7. Build trust: When things start to change in the workplace, it is important to keep the water calm. Building trust will help everyone work together to see improvements.

8. Celebrate success: Make your efforts public to keep everyone motivated and updated throughout the process.

Stephanie Zizzo, ASHM, is an EH&S specialist at Summit Training Source. Stephanie’s diverse skills and experience within the safety industry lends itself to multiple roles within the organization, including research and authoring training content. Stephanie is also an active contributor to Summit’s blog and industry publications. Stephanie holds a bachelor of science degree in occupational, health and safety management from Grand Valley State University. She can be reached at or @SafetySteph on Twitter.


 1 Howes, Jim. “Behavior-Based Safety Programs”. UAW Health and Safety Department.

2 Straub, Lana. “Behavior-Based Safety”. Water Well Journal. December 2005.

3 “Hazards of Behavior-Based Safety Programs”. UFCW.

4 “Safety Culture: What Is at Stake”. 

5 “Creating a Safety Culture”. OSHA.