Remember when “behavioral based safety” was considered revolutionary? We can now say it has been around for quite some time.

How to keep behavior based safety simple

BBS originated with the work of Herbert William Heinrich. In the 1930s, Heinrich, who worked for Traveler’s Insurance Company, reviewed thousands of accident reports completed by supervisors and from these drew the conclusion that most accidents, illnesses and injuries in the workplace are directly attributable to “man-failures,” or unsafe actions of workers. Of the reports Heinrich reviewed, 73 percent classified the accidents as “man-failures”; Heinrich himself reclassified another 15 percent into that category, arriving at the still-cited finding that 88 percent of all accidents, injuries and illnesses are caused by worker errors.1

Most of the BBS work centered on statistics and injury analysis. Practical use started around 1979 when Dr. E. Scott Geller of Safety Performance Solutions began to implement behavioral based safety systems around the world. He was instrumental in making BBS the innovative system in the safety industry.

BBS’s baggage

For all its attributes, BBS has met with opposition. The greatest amount came from labor unions. Resistance centered around the word “behavior.” Basing safety around behaviors, unions argued, is “blaming the employee” for all injuries — and keeping employees safe is no longer part of management’s job.

When behaviors are addressed in BBS, it involves everything the entire workplace population DOES. This also relates to unsafe conditions existing in the workplace. If nothing is DONE to correct an unsafe condition, this indicates a behavior… the condition has not been corrected. This points to management as well as the employee. Still, some have stopped using the word “behavior” to avoid the negative connotations. Dr. Geller even now uses the terminology of “people-based safety.”

During an implementation of our BBS process, “Safety Observations Succeed”, we were doing a walk-thorough of the facility. In the middle of the aisle were a board and other debris. The class attendees walked around the debris and continued on their way. I stopped them and pointed out the debris, an accident waiting to happen. While some might argue that this was a condition, it became a behavior in that no one bothered to remove the debris from the aisle. Ignoring the unsafe condition was something they DID…a behavior.

In our training we do an exercise of collecting “near-misses” from attendees, which involves, over time, the entire population of the facility. We then have attendees analyze the near misses. They decide whether the “almost-accident” was behavior- or condition-related. To date, our results from these activities are: 90 percent of the near misses were behavior-related — things people did or did not DO.

A BBS intervention

A BBS process involves employees dividing the facility into observable areas. Employees who work in that area, along with management and supervision, examine and pinpoint everything that can happen, everything used in the area and what are the best practices to use. Together they determine what action to take and what conditions must be kept under control.

Following this, observations are put together and performed on a frequent basis. Rotating people throughout the facility means fresh eyes are always on different areas. Once an observer fills out the sheet, he/she is not done. Feedback must be given to the people in the area. While employees must be told when things were not done correctly, it is advisable to point out all the things that were done correctly… positive feedback first. People repeat what is praised.

Utilizing everyone in developing the BBS process is critical. People tend to own what they are involved in. Primary workers are the best source of what must be done to make their jobs safe.

 An effective BBS process utilizes these principles: “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and maybe I’ll remember. INVOLVE me and I will understand.” We add to this: “Recognize me and I will do it again and again.”

Employees must understand BBS is what WE ALL DO in the workplace. Management and supervision play are huge part. Without complete commitment, the process will fail.

Keep it simple

Summarize and evaluate what is happening now in the facility; what people do, perceive and want to happen. Utilize anonymous surveys of a large sampling and communicate results.

Identify observable work areas; pinpoint how jobs can be done safely, including the conditions required. Involve all the employees to accomplish this.

Make work area observations, utilizing all employees and give positive feedback.

Promote total involvement. When workers have a part in developing the process, they tend to own it.

Leading vs. lagging indicators used — use metrics such as “near miss” reporting and celebrate resolutions accomplished.

Evaluate over and over again. Workplaces and personnel change over time


[1] http// Safety, Behavior-based Safety- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia