Behavior-based Safety: Build a Culture or Attack Behavior?

Industrial hygienists are targeting their sampling more carefully than in the past as priorities and resources change.

At the Symposium on Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) held last February by the American Society of Safety Engineers, there was a ma- jor split between the presenters as to whether or not an organization should first attempt to determine its culture and then develop the appropriate solutions to its safety problems (if any); or to just move in and install systems that employ (usually at the employee level) some behaviorally sound approaches (e.g., peer observation and contact; use of warm fuzzies).

There was no resolution to this dichotomy of approaches -- basically, whether to concentrate at the employee level, or bottom-up safety; or at the management level, or top-down safety. None of the presenters suggested much of an approach that would do both; that is, involve employees, while at the same time, require change in the management system. Even the culture-building proponents concentrated on working through the employees to change the culture, so that most of the psychologists who now are a part of the safety profession tend to agree that our approach should be to concentrate on the employee, not on management.

While this may be right, it certainly is in direct opposition to safety"s core beliefs. We have always stated that safety is a management function; that safety must be an integral part of the way we manage; that the accident record is a reflection of the management skill of an organization; that safety must be accomplished through improvement of the management system, and the like.

The behavioral gurus all agree on the importance of the management system in safety and then promptly ignore it totally as they teach hourly employees how to be the leaders in safety, as they concentrate on peer observations, peer-positive reinforcement, hourly employees running the safety program, and the like. Is this good? Is this the way it "oughta be"? Were we all wrong in suggesting that safety is a management function?

These kinds of questions seem to me to be absolutely crucial to safety"s future. As safety professionals, exactly what should we be doing at this point?

  • Should we be concentrate on improving the management system?
  • Should we be concentrate on getting more hourly involvement in peer observation & reinforcement?
  • Should we look for the best vendor or guru to come in and fix our problems?
  • These seem to be the options as we head into the new millennium. I have no idea why we have decided that now is the time to turn safety over to the hourly worker. Is it because:
  • Management has been downsized so that there is no time left for safety in management?
  • Team approaches now dominate, so there are no supervisors (the old key men)?
  • We honestly believe that safety is an employee responsibility, not a management responsibility?
  • Safety is such a low priority in our organization that management simply cannot spend any time on it?
  • The "full-plate syndrome," which states nobody in management has time for it (a direct statement of management"s priorities)?
  • Management has decided safety is beyond their capabilities?
  • We in safety have made safety sufficiently mystical that management cannot comprehend what it is that it is supposed to do about it?
  • Management really doesn"t give a damn?
  • Employees enjoy having a piece of the action?
  • Employees enjoy time away from their regular jobs?

Take your choice on these explanations as fits your company. Then decide if the whole process is really right for you -- for the personality and culture of your organization.

I"ve seen the behavior-based approaches work beautifully (even magically, in Scott Geller"s words) in some organizations. I"ve seen these same approaches become a total disaster in other companies.

In short, BBS is no magic pill, no silver bullet. It can be helpful, even useful, in some organizations where it fits, and can be extremely counterproductive in those organizations where it does not fit.

Which brings us back to the title of this article: Should you build a culture or attack behavior? And the answer is -- "it depends." It depends upon the readiness of your organization. What determines whether or not your answer is "culture-building" or" behavior-changing," or both? Culture assessment and culture building are appropriate anytime. If you have the best culture in the universe, it still helps to engage in culture-building activities. You can always get better; in fact, the best organizations are the most successful in getting better. If your culture is horrible (as defined by your hourly employees), it is clearly time to begin to build a culture for the future, for all progress, all success, depends upon the culture of your organization.

Behavior-based approaches (as we currently seem to define them) are not appropriate in all companies. These approaches fit when the culture is right, when there is trust between management and the workforce, when there is a maturity level between groups (i.e., between management and the employees), and when employees are comfortable in observing, correcting and reinforcing each other. These elements are not present in every organization. In some companies, observing your peers would be unacceptable and uncomfortable. In some organizations, there is a deep mistrust between management and workers. In these organizations, much needs to happen before the behavior-based concepts can be successful.

Behavior-based approaches will be highly successful when:

  • There is trust and confidence between management and employees.
  • Management and employees believe in each other.
  • There has been a history of employee maturity; employees have supervised subcontractors; trained other employees, and the like.
  • Managers and supervisors trustemployees and make them a part of the decision-making, problem-solving process.
  • There is an openness in communication or true sharing of information in the organization.
  • Employees have been taught problem-solving, decision-making techniques, whether through TQM, SPC or just good management.
  • Behavior-based approaches probably will not work when:
  • There has been severe downsizing and the behavior-based approaches are purchased to make up for missing supervisors.
  • There is severe distrust between management and the workforce.
  • There is a history of top down superior-subordinate relationships (i.e., Classical Management).
  • There are adversarial employee-management relationships (either union or nonunion).
  • There has been little upward, downward or lateral communication.
  • Employees perceive this as a process to take over the safety function.
  • Managers and supervisors perceive this as a process to abdicate their responsibility for safety.

There are many questions beyond to be answered before opting for "Behavior-Based Safety Approaches", such as:

  • Have we in management really demonstrated that safety is a core value?
  • Have we in management really implanted a system that ensures management/supervisory daily activity (i.e., proactive activity in safety)?
  • Have we in management really built into our systems (e.g., performance appraisal systems, daily numbers game systems) the proof that safety performance is a core value?
  • Have we in management really built into our management/supervisory people that competencies necessary for their true performance?
  • Have we in management really built the sub-systems that ensure that everyone knows exactly what to do when it all goes wrong?
  • Have we in management really built a system that tells us when all has gone wrong, what it is that we missed along the way?
  • Have we really been willing to share information with the workforce?
  • Have we really been willing to share decision-making with the workforce?

There could be hundreds more questions needed to assess your readiness to implement behavior-based safety. Let"s say these are just a start. But if you can"t answer these positively, don"t buy into this new magic bullet. Wait a few years until you can answer the question positively. Then behavior-based safety is for you.

Dan Petersen, Ph.D.,PE, CSP, is a consultant in safety management and organizational behavior. He is a past president of the National Safety Management Society and author of 17 books on safety management.

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