Behavior-based safety is based on a safety philosophy that consists of these principles.
  • All injuries and occupational illnesses can be prevented.
  • Safety is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Management is directly accountable for preventing injuries and occupational illnesses.
  • Training is an essential element for safe workplaces.
  • Safety audits must be conducted.
  • Safe work practices should be reinforced and all unsafe acts and unsafe conditions must be corrected promptly.
  • It is essential to investigate injuries and occupational illnesses as well as incidents with the potential for injury.
  • Safety off the job is an important element of your overall safety effort.
  • Preventing injuries and occupational illnesses is good business.
  • People are the most critical element in the success of a safety and health program

A contrasting approach holds the key to improving safety must concentrate on changing people’s attitudes, in the hope of influencing their subsequent behavior. The underlying assumption here is that attitudes cause behavior. But an attitude is often an expression of how we would like to see ourselves behaving, rather than the behaviors that we actually engage in.

 For example, senior management in many companies says the safety of its employees is of the utmost importance. But often these same managers design the overall workflow system, and/or the reward system, in such a fashion that unsafe practices are inevitably encouraged. Plus, attempts to dig in and change people’s attitude is a time-consuming, therapeutic approach that requires considerable psychological expertise.

 It is a more direct approach to start with behaviors. Observe critical safety-related behaviors and give immediate feedback – with an emphasis on positive feedback for performing the job safely. Immediate corrective feedback must be relayed so the employee does not hurt himself/herself with at-risk behaviors.

Two approaches

A study was conducted to increase employee usage of ear protectors in a metal fabrication plant. Prior to the study, usage of ear protection was extremely low. Two approaches were undertaken.

One approach by behavioral scientists focused attention on the extent of temporary hearing loss experienced by employees who did not wear ear protection during the course of a working day. Feedback about the extent of hearing loss was provided on a daily basis to each individual worker, in an attempt to change their behavior.

The second approach was undertaken by management in two phases, in a different department. The first phase took the form of group lectures, poster campaigns and talks with individual employees in an attempt to change their attitudes and subsequent behavior. The second phase consisted of sanctions such as temporarily suspending employees from their jobs with associated losses of pay and other penalties.

The results were illuminating. The first approach, which focused on behavior through the provision of feedback on temporary hearing loss, resulted in an increase in hearing protector usage from an average of 30-50 percent during the baseline period, to an average of 80-90 percent after five months, although turnover of employees was approximately 65 percent during this period.

The second approach, which attempted a change in attitudes, resulted in a maximum of 10 percent ear protection usage during the same time period.

Here are ten reasons to consider implementing behavior-based safety in your company:

Safety is about people: DuPont data suggests only 6 percent of all injuries occur because of hazardous or unsafe condition. Conversely 94 percent of all injuries are a result of unsafe actions, poor decisions and at-risk behaviors on the part of senior leaders, managers, supervisors and employees. As long as there are people in the workplace, people will make poor decisions at every level of the organization that will result in a forced production push perhaps, or reduced workforce perhaps, overtime, fatigue, overexertion, short cuts – and injuries.

Compliance is not sufficient: Compliance to OSHA regulations is necessary but not sufficient for great safety performance. OSHA’s focus is on hazards and conditions in the workplace. Most traditional inspections and audits focus on these conditions and things rather than people – especially management decision-makers.

Consequences drive behavior: Traditional safety and health programs use posters, rules, training and motivational speeches to prompt safe behavior. Behavioral science teaches us that these have far less impact on our behavior than what happens just after our behavior.

For example, company policy requires that rig crew wear eye protection. But for the worker, the consequences of wearing glasses can be that they are uncomfortable, especially if they had no choice in their selection. Since the immediate consequence is negative, some workers will disregard wearing safety glasses. Bottom line: manage the consequences to get the desired behavior.

Motivation: Traditional safety has a reputation of being negative, punitive and fault-finding. Behavior-based safety gives leaders the opportunity to catch people doing things right and positively reward them for it. Positive feedback is powerful. It builds pride and self-esteem. Punishing people for not living up to certain standards will compel them to do just enough to get by.

Coaching: Behavior-based safety is a systematic approach to not only identify at-risk behaviors, but to give coaching and feedback about work performance relative to safe and at-risk behaviors It also provides accountability to everyone in the organization when safety policies are ignored and not enforced. Effective coaching includes both positive feedback for doing things right and instructive feedback to correct doing things unsafely.

Being proactive: Process measures, such as number of quality observations performed and increases in observed safe critical behaviors and decreases in at-risk behaviors provides valuable data on overall safety performance. It can be the source of discussions at safety meetings, and positive progress can be motivating, and should be celebrated.

The key: observations must be quality reports, not fictions just handed in to meet some quota.

Broad awareness: If everyone from senior leaders to supervisors to employees make safety observations, more people are influenced by these contacts than a safety meeting could ever achieve.

Deep involvement: By making safety observations, senior leaders and managers and supervisors actively lead safety and set an on-going example to their workers — not just at the monthly safety meeting. They can no longer abdicate safety to the safety manager who has no real power to influence people.

Proven effectiveness: A substantial body of evidence gleaned from thousands of implementations worldwide in the past 20-30 years shows that behavior-based safety can be an important part of your overall safety efforts. Two points need to made: 1) Behavior-based safety is not a substitute for your safety program, which can also include various forms of data analysis, safety systems analysis, a safety management system consisting of regular audits and reporting, and of course your regulatory compliance activities. 2) Your company culture must be mature enough in its safety thinking and decision-making, and in its relations between employees, supervisors and managers, in order to implement a behavior-based safety system. If your culture is developed enough and relationships between employees strong enough, there will be insufficient trust for the observation process to succeed.

Transcends workplace safety: The coaching skills developed through a behavior-based safety program – observations, one-on-one conversations, how to ask questions and actively listen – can be useful in other performance areas of your organization.

How it works

There is no single universal method for implementing a behavior-based safety process. BBS procedures can be tweaked and customized a thousand ways. There is no sneaking or spying in the process. Absolutely no “gotcha.” The observer monitors the worker and notes his safe behaviors. He also monitors any at-risk behaviors. Feedback should start by commending the safe behavior the worker was doing. Then the observer explains, one-by-one, any at-risk behaviors the worker was doing and the potential consequences. The observer asks why the worker put himself at risk. A conversation can ensue that can shed light on unseen factors affecting behavior, such as time pressures, production priorities, etc.

The observation process is captured in a checklist consisting of well-defined critical behaviors for a job to be done safely, with all safe and at-risk behaviors checked off, along with comments from the follow-up conversation. Checklists are entered in an electronic database. Reports are generated for the BBS steering committee to analyze for trends in types of similar at-risk behaviors, and behaviors regularly performed safely.

The steering committee should be composed of employees truly committed to safety, and should include supervisors and members of senior leadership. Their analysis of the data can lead to changes in safety control systems, operating procedures, safety training, and how to gain more input from the workforce.