Love it or hate it,behavior-based safety (BBS) has become an entrenched part of the EHS landscape since it first emerged in the 1980s. Still, many safety professionals rightly point out that what many people think of as behavior-based safety doesn’t work. These are the processes that are isolated from other safety systems, done under duress, exclude key players like managers or supervisors, or are used simply to dump responsibility for safety onto employees.

So why does BBS remain so popular? And what do successful BBS users know that others don’t?

This article reexamines the real role of BBS and offers four reasons why the approach still matters.

The origins of BBS: Filling a void

BBS first came into vogue in the late 1980s just as the idea of a zero injury organization was beginning to emerge. At a time when some number of accidents was “just expected,” the idea of significantly reducing — and even eliminating — workplace injuries was revolutionary. The problem was that there were several things in the way:

• Organizations had little to no visibility of actual risk levels, real-time or otherwise.

• Safety measures were lagging indicators that didn’t accurately predict future performance.

• Without predictive measures, safety was highly reactive; the few times employees saw their company take action was usually when someone got hurt.

• There was no way to prove (or disprove) the success of safety efforts.

• Raising “alertness,” the main proactive safety method, didn’t translate into fewer injuries.

Behavior-based safety offered a way to address these issues by introducing a new and more precise way of measuring safety: anonymously documenting the exposures that existed in the day-to-day configuration of people, process and equipment.

This in turn opened doors to upstream interventions. It also offered front-line employees a significant voice in defining safety on their own terms.

Despite the promise, behavior-based safety, like many new ideas, took on a life of its own. It became a fad. People began to lose sight of the reasons they first embraced it and, in many places, rather than helping pull disparate elements together, BBS became a substitute for the shortsighted practices that preceded it.

Still relevant

Given its mixed history, how could BBS still be relevant to today’s organizations?

Like many things that become popular, the needs don’t go away just because the tool is sometimes poorly used. The real issues that BBS addresses still exist, and they still benefit from the methods that proven BBS approaches offer: a focus on data, engagement of a cross-section of employees, matching of resources to objectives, and integration with other safety systems and tools.

BBS is still relevant also because it continues to address the perennial issues that face organizations and safety performance. Though by no means exhaustive, here are four significant reasons that BBS still matters now:

1. Engagement drives performance.

Effective BBS efforts foster partnerships between front-line employees (who are closest to workplace risks), with supervisors and managers (who are best positioned to change processes and systems).

Why this matters: An organization as a whole lives and dies on the behavior of its people. BBS offers a unique starting point for collaboration among various levels and functions. A focus on safety makes that collaboration immediately personal and dependent on discussing values — real values, not lunchroom posters.

2. Exposures, not injuries, are the key to zero harm.

The sampling in a well-implemented BBS approach provides visibility of actual exposures, not theoretical exposures based on extrapolating from a model. In turn, this allows organizations to plan, implement and assess solutions based on real-time changes in risk.

Why this matters:  It’s a common misconception that when you’re measuring injuries that you’re also measuring exposures.

This idea comes from a literal translation of the accident iceberg, which posits a predictive relationship between injury and severity. Recent research shows that while the model is accurate descriptively (less serious injuries do happen more often than more severe injuries), it is not accurate predictively (there is not a constant ratio between injury types as some people assert). In the same way, other assumptions about accident causation (that it’s either “technical failure” or “human error”) or metrics (e.g. that low injury rates indicate that safety generally is well-managed) are proving to be over-simplified, inaccurate and often downright harmful.

3. We learn — and change — by experience.

BBS offers employees at all levels direct involvement in safety systems, creating first-hand experience of those systems and the reasons behind them. It allows workers to see for themselves the validity of what they learned in safety training.

Why this matters: Training is important, but it is a poor change tool. Despite our best intentions, we tend to learn new behaviors by experiencing the results that come from performing those behaviors ourselves. If no negative consequences occur, the behavior is reinforced and usually repeated until it becomes habitual.

For example, even though we’re told that speeding can lead to an accident, most of us have experienced no negative consequences from speeding. Even the occasional speeding ticket does not change the belief developed from our experience: that speeding is not inherently dangerous. Our experience gives us false feedback.

4. Safety will never have a one-size-fits-all solution.

BBS adds human perspective and actual exposure metrics to the mix of tools and systems needed to reduce hazards.

Why this matters: Safety performance has always been subject to “Holy Grail” thinking — people looking for the one all-inclusive method that will fix everything. But no single approach can correct for a dysfunctional team culture, absentee management or production-at-all-costs business systems. A well-balanced portfolio of tools includes (but doesn’t exclusively rely on) BBS and the insights it offers.

Making BBS work

Behavior-based safety can be a very powerful performance improvement engine. It is a way to improve and engage people in improving safety. The principles that make BBS work, and that make it relevant, are relevant to everything we do as an organization. The trick is understanding where BBS fits both within safety and within the organization as a whole.