Does Behavior-Based Safety Still Apply?
Behavior-based safety (BBS) has been a large part of Environmental Health and Safety since the early 1980’s. Today, it’s become a contentious topic for some people, depending on which side of the debate you stand. BBS was designed to apply the science of behavioral change to safety. It’s a process that is supposed to create a safety partnership between workers and supervisors. The main goal of BBS is to focus people’s attention and action on daily safety behavior and target changes in worker behavior as a means of preventing injuries.
BBS was invented during the revolutionary advent of “zero-injury organizations”. At the time, people simply expected accidents to occur, and the idea of reducing—or even eliminating—workplace injuries seemed like an impossible feat. At first, BBS was considered the new, cutting edge safety standard for companies who wanted to reduce workplace hazards and injuries.
When the idea of BBS was beginning to emerge, there were several issues safety professionals wanted to address (2):
- Safety measures without the correct indicators to predict future worker performance
- Little visibility of actual risk levels in real time
- Highly reactive safety measures; companies only acting after an injury occurred
- The inability to prove or disprove successful safety practices
- The fact that simply raising awareness was not a successful proactive safety measure by itself
Once behavior-based safety was introduced, it provided a way to address these key safety issues by introducing a “safety measurement system.” This idea was unheard of at the time—even considered revolutionary by some. BBS included the anonymous documentation of hazardous exposures that existed in a company’s day-to-day processes. Many believe it provided facilities with proactive interventions and offered workers the opportunity to voice their safety concerns.
The idea of BBS was a positive solution to SOME potential safety issues. However, behavior-based safety eventually began to change overtime, as companies began to forget why they implemented it in the first place. In many facilities, it simply became a substitute for the poor practices that preceded it (1). There has been a lot of criticism regarding BBS because many believe it offers companies and managers a way to dump safety practices on their employees, rather than working with them to design better engineering controls to improve safety.
According to the director of occupational safety and health for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, “In our industries, there are abundant hazards. We believe that needs to be the focus of any safety program—that you go looking for the hazard, not the careless act. Once you’ve cleaned up all the hazards, fine—go find the careless acts (1).”
Even so, many companies, risk managers, and consultants argue that behavior-based safety is a great was to define safety hazards—if managers and employers work together and it’s put into practice with other safety controls as a holistic approach to reducing hazards and workplace injuries (3). It’s also important that the focus is on recognizing safe behaviors and reinforcing them when conducting an observation.
The assertion that BBS practices are still relevant today stems from the idea that it’s a fantastic concept that is often used improperly. This approach tells us that BBS can be a great tool because the real safety issues it addresses still exist, and they benefit from the methods that appropriate BBS approaches provide. Behavior-based safety, if used correctly, should focus on data, employee engagement, ensuring resources used meet safety objectives, and integrating this practice with other safety systems and tools (1).
Those who stand behind BBS contend that immediate causes of accidents and injuries are directly connected to worker behavior. The BBS approach begins with initiatives that include asking workers to observe their fellow employees, documenting near-miss incidents, and collecting feedback to devise recognition programs intended to discern unsafe practices and reduce them (3). But, behavior-based safety is not meant to be an antidote for hazards that are affecting the workplace. Those who support BBS practices believe that they are not a replacement for other processes that keep workers safe. BBS is simply intended to be one of many tools that should be used holistically—in a comprehensive safety program—in conjunction with other safety measures and engineering safety controls.
- Behavior-based Safety: A Study of Pros and Cons. Safety and Health Magazine, August 1, 2009.
- Four Reasons Behavior-based Safety Still Matters. ISHN, December 4, 2012.
- Behavior Based Safety Guide. Health and Safety Authority.
- New World Safety Standard: ISO 45001
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