The Six Biggest Mistakes in Implementing a Behavior-Based Safety Process

Jan. 1, 2001
A behavior analyst uncovers the six biggest mistakes companies make when attempting to implement the behavior-based safety process and explains how misunderstanding the process can inherently destroy it.

Warning: In all probability, your organization's behavior-based safety process will soon collapse.

Statistics show that 70 percent of such initiatives undertaken by American companies fail, resulting in billions of dollars in lost time and revenues.

Yet, worse than the financial loss is the pervasive skepticism of both management and hourly employees that follows -- skepticism often expressed as, "Our company is incapable of change."

Safety is often the starting point for positive-change initiatives within organizations. Planning and managing change is a strategic advantage if successfully executed. If not, however, a downward spiral of negative expectations can eventually paralyze any willingness to confront change. Therefore, in addition to being an important area for positive change, a safety initiative's success or failure may foreshadow the success or failure of future change efforts.

Fortunately, today's companies, both national and international, have come to the realization that antecedent and results-only safety programs cannot maximize safe performance. Safety processes that target the root cause of most accidents and incidents human behavior once ignored or rarely heard of, have now claimed the spotlight. The new acceptance and implementation of behavior-based safety methods is a step in the right direction, but a few common missteps can prematurely cripple your organization's process.

The six biggest risks your company might take in implementing behavior-based safety fall under the categories of "how" you implement and "what" you are trying to get people to do.

Risk No. 1

Thinking that observation and participation are the core of behavior-based safety

The origin of this first and biggest risk can usually be traced to the numerous consulting companies selling behavior-based services. Most of the consulting firms selling and delivering behavior-based instruction are safety professionals by training and experience. Their understanding of the behavior approach is limited, resulting in applications which rigidly duplicate and emphasize random pieces of applied behavioral science.

This shallow understanding of human behavior is evident in the tendency to describe behavior-based safety as "an observational process" or as "observational safety." One of the most obvious activities in the behavioral safety process is to observe others at work.

But -- behavior-based safety is not primarily about observation.

Another element of behavior-based safety that is overly focused upon is "empowerment" or "participation." Involving hourly employees in safety management is recognized as a unique characteristic of the behavior-based process. Yet, behavior-based safety is not primarily about empowerment.

The biggest risk a company's management can take is to assume that the organization has correctly implemented behavioral safety because observations are being performed by employees, some of whom are participating on the steering committee.

Behavior-based safety is about integrating behavioral technology into the management of safety in your company. Behavioral technology is the system and process for applying the laws and principles that govern human behavior. The objective of applying these laws and principles is to achieve behavior change.

Performing observations and allowing hourly employees to conduct those observations does not necessarily lead to changes in the way people behave at work. In most instances, it only changes the way they behave when they are being observed.

The major objective of an effective behavior-based safety process is to make safe behavior a habit. The above concepts are critical for changing unsafe habits to safe habits and for changing an organization's safety culture.

Unsafe behavior is habitual in most employees. They have done something the wrong way for so long that they are not conscious of the behavior. The major objective of behavior-based safety is to replace all the unconscious unsafe behavior with unconscious, or automatic, safe behavior -- or safe habits. To accomplish this objective, hourly employees, supervisors and managers must understand and apply behavior change technology effectively.

Risk No. 2

Failing to apply positive reinforcement systematically and effectively

As previously stated, achieving lasting organizational change (changing the culture) is impossible without a sufficient grounding in the basic laws and principles of behavior. This deficiency is most critical regarding positive reinforcement.

In his book, Bringing Out the Best in People, Dr. Aubrey Daniels reviews the most common errors made in delivering positive reinforcement. Most supervisors and managers make these errors daily. Positive reinforcement is the key to replacing unsafe work habits with safe habits. If provisions have not been made in your safety initiative for training in the principles and application of positive reinforcement, then the natural reinforcement that is currently supporting unsafe work habits will continue to elicit that behavior.

We know that unsafe behavior or risk taking (including taking shortcuts/risks in implementing behavior-based safety) occurs because it has some natural positive reinforcers. Risk taking saves time, effort and sometimes helps the performer avoid discomfort. Unsafe behavior then, is self-perpetuating because of the natural consequences that favor it. Completion of an ABC Analysis usually indicates that several positive consequences (for the performer) support and maintain unsafe behavior. The ABC Analysis (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) is a simple method of systematically analyzing the antecedents and consequences influencing a behavior.

With that concept in mind, it then follows that delivering regular positive reinforcement for safe behaviors is the key to replacing unsafe habits with safe habits. Manager, supervisors and coworkers must deliver this reinforcement immediately, consistently and appropriately or the safe behavior we are encouraging will never reach habit strength.

Positive reinforcement is currently applied in a superficial manner, if at all, in most behavior-based processes. The failure of organizations to implement and manage change and to obtain long-lasting change in organizational behavior (culture change) relates to this fact. Risk No. 3 also stems from the lack of sufficient and correct use of positive reinforcement.

Risk No. 3

Changing only the hourly employees

For long-lasting change, everyone must make a behavioral change -- not only the hourly employees. Management is integral to change, yet most initiatives target employee behavior alone.

Any behavior-based process should include a list of support behaviors for both management and supervision. This list constitutes a measured self-inventory in the form of a checklist with points. A measurement and graphed feedback system forms the basis of positively reinforcing managers and supervisors for specific behaviors related to supporting the behavior-based safety process. Hourly employees are reinforced for increased rates of safe behavior, while managers and supervisors are reinforced for their supportive behaviors.

With measurement systems in place to track the behavior of hourly, management and supervisory personnel, plus a knowledge of how to deliver positive reinforcement for the increased frequency of specific behaviors, Risk No. 4 might be avoided.

Risk No. 4

Making behavior-based safety the primary responsibility of the employees

Behavior-based safety should have a measured, well-defined role for everyone in your organization. Too often, behavior-based processes are positioned and implemented as hourly employee programs. This brings about short range changes visible in the form of specific bureaucratic activities which focus on implementing change. Long range, however, one will observe:

Resentment in the hourly ranks related to the perception that they are putting out most of the work and effort to make the process work.

Abdication by management and supervision of responsibility for safety because it's "their program" or "their responsibility" to manage safety now.

A backlash in which the process dies a slow death because hourly employees tire of the additional work and responsibility without receiving adequate positive recognition and reinforcement for their efforts.

As explained in Risk No. 3, an outline must be developed that specifically defines measured roles for management, supervisory and hourly employees. Risk No. 4 could not be avoided if organizations would not commit Risk No. 5.

Risk No. 5

Not training managers, supervisors and hourly employees in the core principles of behavior change technology

To imbue managers, supervisors and hourly employees with a sense of ownership in this process, the company should provide everyone with the same training. Training is the launch pad for change but is only worthwhile if followed by feedback and positive reinforcement for new desirable behaviors. It is through training that a consensus and acceptance of roles and responsibility is communicated and attained.

An additional element of importance to stress during training is that though behavior-based safety focuses on safe behavior, we know that human behavior is the common path to problems and improvements in the areas such as service, quality, timeliness and cost reduction.

Behavior is the common variable in every organizational performance issue. When an organization learns the principles of behavior change, those same principles can be applied to other strategic performance variables. A grounding in basic behavioral technology precedes the natural progression to using the principles for all performance improvement. Thorough training of the entire workforce regarding behavioral technology presents the opportunity for vast changes in performance-changes unavailable to business units that view behavior-based safety as simply a collection of meetings, observations and data review. Those who perceive behavior-based safety as such will inevitably engage in Risk No. 6.

Risk No. 6

Trying to fit an activities-based "program" to your organization

This mistake is precipitated by the perception that behavior-based safety is a sequence of activities, meetings, observations and data reviews, rather than a process for changing behavior. If your organization is attempting to implement a program that encourages lengthy (30 minutes or more) observations of a long list of behaviors, then you have unwittingly taken Risk No. 6.

Most organizations assume that the following are necessary to achieve behavior-based safety:

  • A program with time, manpower and paperwork requirements that create a new bureaucracy in the company;
  • large amounts of time off the job to complete training, paperwork and observations, and attend meetings;
  • assignment of already overworked personnel to the new initiative;
  • significant indirect costs in lost production, overtime and time off the job; and
  • one to two years of hard work to attain significant results.

All of the above are reflections of the activities-based approach to behavior-based safety. In contrast, the principles and concepts approach provides you with an understanding for the rationales behind the activities and allows you to use your knowledge of behavioral technology to tailor and design a process that fits your requirements. For instance, your behavior-based training should include the following elements:

  • Make observations on longer than five minutes.
  • Observe only two or three behaviors at a time.
  • Integrate observations into the work process so that there is no time off the job.
  • Design self-observations for employees who operate vehicles or work alone.

Many of the programs now implemented do not use the practices listed above. The traditional activities approach is, therefore, much more demanding in terms of resources. Those who become more familiar with behavior technology will soon find that the shorter list is not only more desirable but also obtains the fastest and best results.

In conclusion, the six risks in implementing a behavior-based process surround a core of misunderstanding what a behavior-based safety process really is. The correct approach begins with an in-depth knowledge of how to change human behavior. The laws and principles of behavioral technology can be engineered to the exact requirements of your company and extended to all the behaviors your organization's strategic performance objectives demand.

Jerry Pounds is senior vice president of Aubrey Daniels International headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. He has been in the field of behavioral analysis for more than 30 years. For more information visit Aubrey Daniels' Web site at

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