What could be worse,” bellowed W. Edwards Deming at his four-day workshop in 1991, than “on-the-job training”.1 At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant. Now I know.

Dr. Deming was concerned that fundamentals of statistical process control and total-quality management were being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused because the trainers did not obtain their information from the most appropriate sources, including evidence-based theory and applications.

Rather, he feared too many employees learned their procedures from individuals who merely attended a workshop or assisted in the implementation of a related program at their site.  In these cases, employees learn one way of applying the information. And, with each passing of information between employees, the applications become more situation-biased, drifting successively from the evidence-based principles.

The psychology of injury prevention is more complex and less straightforward than statistical process control. Yet, I see vendor marketing and professional speeches at safety conferences grossly oversimplify the role of human behavior and dispositional states on workplace injuries..

As a student, researcher, and teacher of psychological science for 50 years, I am disappointed and frustrated by such oversimplification. It actually makes a mockery of psychology; but more importantly, these marketing tactics are misleading and can result in more harm than good. For example, focusing on a limited number of person traits or states as the cause of an injury stifles the search and discovery of critical contributing factors.  This “pop psychology” can also limit or bias the interpersonal conversations needed to identify the variety of system factors that influence the human factors. The human side of keeping people safe is not simple.

Principles vs. procedures

When I ask workshop participants to define BBS, the common answer is “interpersonal observation and feedback.” Some specify the development of a behavioral checklist.  Then someone occasionally adds that the observations are entered into a computer program in order to obtain “percent-safe scores” for behaviors, work teams, and/or departments.

“Those are specific tools and operations that evolved from BBS,” I explain. “But what are the evidence-based principles of BBS?” I ask. I rarely get a meaningful response to this question, indicating inadequate understanding of BBS and an inability to apply BBS beyond a narrow application. Numerous BBS programs have seemed to evolve from “on-the-job-training.”  Indeed, trainers for several BBS consulting firms obtained their BBS training by watching other trainers or by serving as a BBS facilitator at one industrial site.  This limits the ability to customize a BBS process for a particular work culture.

Legitimate resistance to BBS

   Here’s one example of the unfortunate misinterpretation and ill-informed teaching of BBS that persists to this day.  A number of BBS trainers market their BBS program on the premise that “95% of all workplace accidents are caused by behavior.”  When these BBS sales pitches became popular in the 1980s and early 1990s, leaders of labor unions objected vehemently and justifiably.2 Why?  Because claiming behaviors cause workplace injuries and property damage places blame on the employee and dismisses management responsibility. 

“Don’t blame people for problems caused by the system,” warned Dr. Deming.1 Most worker behavior is an outcome of the work culture. 

It’s wrong to presume behavior is a “cause” of an injury or property damage.  Rather, behavior is one of several contributing factors to an injury, along with environmental and engineering factors, management factors, cultural factors, and even person-states. The human side of safety is complex and dynamic.  When BBS is implemented appropriately the question is not, “What behavior caused the injury?”, but “What factors are leading people to perform the at-risk behaviors that could result in an injury?”

People-Based Safety

BBS distortions and inaccuracies led me to introduce a new label for applying psychological science to occupational safety — people-based safety (PBS).  Note the term “psychological” science rather than “behavioral” science.  This change reflects the fact that PBS draws from areas of psychology beyond behavioral science, including cognitive science, social science, as well as research addressing perception, emotion, and personality. The PBS principles and applications for injury prevention are detailed in textbooks3 and journal articles4, as well as on CD’s and DVD’s.5  And at least one consulting/training firm6 is dedicated to applying these principles. 

The PBS approach is not an alternative to BBS.  It’s an evolution.  It integrates the best of behavior-based and person-based psychology, as reflected by the acronym ACTS: Acting, Coaching, Thinking, and Seeing.  The Acting and Coaching components are essentially BBS, except self-coaching and self-management techniques are incorporated.  These added processes are supported through self-talk, which involve the Thinking component of PBS.

The Seeing dimension of PBS takes into account the divergent views of safety-related issues held by employers, supervisors, and managers, which should be assessed with a perception survey and considered when designing and evaluating interventions to improve safety leadership and performance. 

To conclude

This brief commentary makes three key points:

1. Addressing the human side of injury prevention is more complex than marketing frequently makes it seem.

2. Behavior-based safety (BBS) is much more than an observation-and-feedback process, with research-based principles and procedures applicable to many issues beyond injury prevention.

3. People-based safety (PBS) evolved from BBS to incorporate human dynamics beyond behavior, including thinking (or self-talk), self-management, selective perception, self-motivation, and attitudes.

The basic principles of psychological science that safety leaders need to understand before addressing the human dynamics of worker safety is found in a new book.7 This text teaches principles and provides case studies, and evolved from BBS and PBS.



1. Deming, W.E. (1991). Quality, productivity, and competitive position.  Four-day workshop presented in Cincinnati, Ohio by Quality Enhancement Seminars, Inc.

2. Hans, M. (1996).  Does behavior-based safety work? Safety and Health, National Safety Council, June, 44-49; Howe, J. (1998, January). A union critique of behavioral safety. Paper presented at the ASSE Behavioral Safety Symposium, Orlando, FL; Hoyle, B. (1998). Fixing the workplace, not the worker: A workers’ guide to accident prevention. Lakewood, CO: Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union; Lessin, N. (1997). Workers need real rights. Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, 31(10), p. 42; Smith, T. A. (1995). Viewpoint: Rebutting behaviorism. Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, 40(3), p. 40; UAW health and Safety Department (1999). Warning: Behavior-based safety can be hazardous to your health and safety program.

3. Geller, E.S. (2003). People-based safety: The psychology of actively caring.  Professional Safety, 48(12), 33-43; Geller, E. S. (2006). People-based safety: An evolution of behavior-based safety for greater effectiveness. Proceeding of the 2006 Professional Development Conference for the American Society of Safety Engineers; Geller, E.S. (2011). Psychological  science and safety: Large-scale success at preventing occupational injuries and fatalities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 109-114.

4. Geller, E.S. (2005). People-based safety: The source. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training and Technologies Corporation; Geller, E.S. (2008). Leading people-based safety: Enriching your culture. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training and Technologies Corporation; Geller, E.S., & Johnson, D. (2008). People-based patient safety: Enriching your culture to prevent medical error. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training and Technologies Corporation.

5. Actively Caring for Safety: The Psychology of Injury Prevention. (1997). Blacksburg, VA:  Safety Performance Solutions [Twelve 30-min. audiotapes with workbook to teach principles and procedures for preventing unintentional injury at work, at home, and on the road]; The Safety Performance Coach (2003). Thibodaux, LA: J.W. Toups, Inc. [An internet education/training service including email, CDs, cassettes, video CDs, and support materials to teach employees principles and strategies for improving the human dynamics of a work culture.]

6. Log onto safetyperformance.com to learn more about PBS and Safety Performance Solutions. 

7. Geller, E.S. (2013) (Ed.) Actively caring for people: Cultivating a culture of compassion. Newport, VA: Make-A-Difference, LLC.