Love the Process, Hate the Name

June 3, 2004
Terry McSween can cite plenty of evidence that behavior-based safety works. He just prefers to call it something else.

When it comes to values-based safety, Terry McSween picked a good environment in the 1980s in which to work. "I was with a company that did a lot of training with DuPont. We were doing leadership training and, obviously, you have to integrate anything you do at DuPont with safety," he recalled. "A DuPont site asked us in to do what we today would call a behavior-based safety intervention."

While McSween had worked with companies on issues such as quality and customer service, he found safety fun, personally rewarding and, he noted, an area in which he could clearly identify critical behaviors.

After more than a decade of helping companies implement behavior-based safety (BBS), McSween, the CEO of Quality Safety Edge (, based in Houston, says BBS has two key elements that most practitioners agree on getting employees involved in on-the-job safety observations and coaching, and creating a management process that uses the information from the observations to target improvements in the workplace.

When employees use a checklist to conduct safety observations, said McSween, research shows companies begin to experience a valuable benefit. "The employees conducting the observations begin to perform the practices on that checklist much more consistently, even if nobody comes around and observes them or they never get any feedback," he said. That one of the main reasons why McSween tries to get "as many employees as we practically can" involved in the observation process.

For the BBS process to be sustained, said McSween, it is vital that the safety committee "systematically use the information coming out of the observations as a basis for continual improvement."

Having a BBS process doesn't mean that targeted safety programs are no longer needed, said McSween. On the contrary, the data that comes out of the observations should drive specific programs.

"The employees understand that the reason they are talking about back safety in the safety meeting this month is not because it happens to be a hot button for the safety manager, but rather because that is the area, based on their data, where there is room for the most improvement and where employees are at the greatest risk. Programs that occur, that have a beginning and end, are more strategic. Everyone understands what is driving them."

McSween acknowledges the criticism that BBS is too focused on employees' behavior and not enough on that of management. He notes, "We have always viewed management as the keepers of the culture." He says how managers speak about safety and act is crucial to the establishment and maintenance of a good safety culture. For instance, he noted that many companies today follow the DuPont example of starting staff meetings with a safety review. The problem, he said, is the way they do it. Often, the manager leading the meeting asks if there were any accidents or injuries to report. If not, they go on to other issues such as production or costs.

"That sets the tone for the whole organization to be reactive," McSween observed. "They are only going to attend to safety when something happens." At that point, he adds, it's too late. What should happen, he explained, is that the operating managers discuss what they have done the past week to promote safety or help prevent injuries and what they are planning to do in the coming week. "There should be attention to what people are doing to create this safety culture," he said, "and not just a focus on outcome measures."

Despite his advocacy of BBS, McSween says he prefers the term "values-based safety" because "there is so much baggage associated with the term 'behavior.' It hasn't served us well." Part of the extensive planning that McSween puts into his implementation process is to help companies identify and clarify their values with regard to safety. Among the values that are typically identified are participation in the safety process, concern for the safety and well-being of coworkers, promotion of openness and honesty and a process based on fact-finding, not fault-finding.

McSween pointed out that it is important to align the tools, practices and training that go into the safety process with these values. For example, the checklists that employees use in observations read "safe" and "concern" rather than safe and unsafe.

As employees perform observations, said McSween, they come to recognize any discrepancies between their own behavior and what is considered safe, and they begin to adopt safe practices more consistently. "We have created a process where they raise their personal standards," he said.

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