Behavioral Safety: A Necessary Part of the Whole

Nov. 12, 2002
Some behavior-based safety programs have been implemented at the expense of engineering controls and management accountability, but an either-or approach is a recipe for failure.

Behavior-based safety (BBS) initiatives fault the worker as the primary cause of accidents and injuries, ignoring the necessity for engineering fixes to improve hazardous equipment and conditions that could eliminate potential causes of incidents. At least, that is the assertion of a number of union safety and health professionals.

Their statements suggest that BBS, by blaming the worker as the main cause of an injury or incident, takes the "spotlight" off those who really need to be involved in an improvement process management and supervisors.

Such critics cite reports that some 90 percent to 96 percent of injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors, safety incentive programs and discipline policies. These reports, they assert, wrongly focus on line employees, letting corporate and site management abrogate their responsibility for providing the safest conditions and equipment.

Critics such as the United Auto Workers' Jim Howe, Jim Frederick of the United Steelworkers and Nancy Lessin of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO have also made public their conclusions related to incident investigations for fatalities and disabling incidents over a span of many years. They assert that most, if not all, were due to:

1. People working in unsafe conditions, with poor workplace design;

2. Failure to take proper preventive measures; and

3. Failure to provide essential safeguards.

If my understanding is correct, these and other critics of BBS state that if workplace environments and equipment were designed properly in the first place, or redesigned, the need for personal protective equipment and other safety procedures would be eliminated.

I concur with the critics of BBS who point to imperfections with many BBS approaches. Too many companies are not investing the necessary resources to truly make a difference in incident prevention. Some firms have adopted the idea from certain providers of BBS programs that line employees are where the attention and behavior change efforts need to be focused. Some business owners and leaders are taking the lives and well-being of their employees for granted and siphon off resources needed for essential safety, health and environmental improvements to other priorities. Some actions are even criminal in nature and display a blatant disregard for life and the environment.

Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water!

My concern, however, is that many of these critics lump all attempts to change unsafe behaviors into the same "tainted" category of behavior-based safety! In so doing, they inevitably make incorrect assertions about some, negating the processes that make a difference by supporting change on the part of management and line employees, while identifying and correcting unsafe conditions and work environments.

Industry is not an ideal world. Hazards are rampant. Given this reality, we need a variety of processes being pursued simultaneously to ensure the safety, health and well-being of employees. People also work alone, in routine and nonroutine situations, with no external supervision. This applies to off-the-job situations as well, which lead to a far greater number of accidents and injuries than workplaces. The only difference is that one is noted on OSHA logs and the other is not. In both cases, a valuable person is injured.

To ensure that people are safe in both environments requires a heightened level of concern and responsibility from leadership, coupled with a shift from unsafe attitudes, thinking and behaviors to safe ones. People need the awareness and skills to observe and manage their thinking and choices in any situation.

Howe and others point to the Hierarchy of Health and Safety Controls:

  1. 1. Elimination or substitution of the hazard and risk (most effective)
  2. 2. Engineering
  3. 3. Warnings
  4. 4. Training and procedures
  5. 5. Personal protective equipment, or PPE (least effective).

Despite the logic of this hierarchy, the work world is not a perfect, laboratory environment. At whatever place in time a commitment is made for improvement, we need to use this as our starting point and work with, protect and improve safeguards in the situation. The important issue is that we cannot ignore one area that needs attention for another. We cannot give up personal responsibility for our own or others' safety. We need to guarantee the presence of:

  1. 1. Safe attitudes and behaviors among all levels of employees;
  2. 2. Safe procedures, PPE and equipment safeguards to protect against injury and prevent incidents related to hazards that exist; and
  3. 3. Broad-based employee involvement teams to identify and solve unsafe and hazardous workplace conditions, equipment, etc.

Everyone Is Included!

When we talk about changing the attitudes and behaviors of employees, we are not referring to line/labor only. Attitudes and behaviors of corporate and site management (top, middle and line) must embody the worth and importance of the safety and health of all employees, private citizens and our environment.

Constructive change and improvement must start with an objective examination of where we are and where we want to go. Then, as with strategic and tactical planning, we can identify the barriers or obstacles to that end and develop objectives and strategies to get there. To implement the strategies and achieve them, we must allocate necessary resources.

If the commitment is genuine on the parts of management and labor, and the willingness to put aside personal differences and agendas to work toward a common vision exists, success will result. To achieve a breakthrough in EHS performance, it is essential for labor and management to:

  1. 1. Identify existing values that influence attitudes and drive safe behaviors;
  2. 2. Identify gaps between perceived values and professed values (saying one thing and doing another);
  3. 3. Identify differences and work toward common solutions;
  4. 4. Empower each other and develop trust;
  5. 5. Change the culture or the prevailing norms, attitudes, beliefs and values that reflect our true commitments to the safety, health and well-being of everyone affected; and
  6. 6. Demonstrate these values in actions. (This will provide a blueprint of how a company will perform and is a means to get back on track for breakthroughs!)

A Holistic, Integrated Approach

The problem we face in safety, health and environmental improvement is not wayward employees who spitefully place their hands in unguarded machinery or purposefully pollute the environment. What we face is a set of larger, harder-to-fix woes stemming from unsafe attitudes and behaviors. These come not just from employees, but also from supervisors and managers at site and corporate levels.

A holistic, integrated approach emphasizes the importance of the whole and interdependence of the parts. You cannot achieve a breakthrough alone. How can you ask line employees to behave safely if supervisors and managers are pushing for other priorities or encouraging people to work with unsafe equipment or in unsafe conditions? Especially today, when jobs are at a premium, people will often take shortcuts or bypass procedures to enhance productivity. If your initiative is only directed toward line or labor employees and leaves management attitudes and behaviors out, expect conflict and most likely incidents and injuries!

All employees can and should be responsible for their own and others' well-being. All can and should be trained and be involved in the improvement process. All can and will reap the benefits, including a culture where individuals care about themselves and each other.

The rationale for selecting a holistic approach is that we are holistic beings. We do not operate solely on an observable physical level, but on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. Lasting behavioral change occurs when values, attitudes and beliefs are addressed directly. When people believe in the value of safety for themselves and others, they will make appropriate decisions and act safely.

It is also essential to prevent accidents caused by a lapse in awareness and loss of focus due to boredom, daydreaming, distractions and stress. Many employees are injured even when wearing required PPE because they were not paying attention. Specific skills to focus and pay attention, as well as manage stress, are necessary.

Personal responsibility at all levels is critical. This includes empowering people to take action to make changes. When safety, health and the environment become the pawn in a power play from any party, everyone loses.

The root causes of incidents and the management systems that permit them are the unsafe attitudes and behaviors of line and management employees. It is these that must be changed. Culture is comprised of the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, thinking norms and values that influence our choices and behaviors. If unsafe conditions and behaviors exist, the culture needs to be examined, especially competing priorities that displace a concern for safety, health and the environment.

There are behavior-based consulting firms that advocate working with line or hourly employees only. Some managers will approve a line worker-only process because it takes the onus off them and puts it on other employees. This thinking also opens the door to incentive programs that, in my opinion, largely insult workers' intelligence. The thinking is that tickets to the ballgame or some extra cash are more important than our eyes, hands, back, etc. Incentive programs also can create "mischief," driving incidents underground to obtain the prize. Much more important than external motivation is to change the underlying beliefs that create attitudes such as "it won't happen to me" or "I know what I'm doing so I can take this shortcut." Real change comes with recognition of what is at stake, not with rewards.

No Foolproof Mouse Trap!

Despite legitimate concerns from the critics, I do not believe we can build a "foolproof mousetrap." We have implemented our process in companies where bright, capable employees bypassed safety controls to speed up their productivity, whether to meet quotas or to meet deadlines early to have more time off. Though PPE would not be needed in an ideal world, we are not there yet. We are in process, and every positive influence from labor, management and internal or external consultants is essential to shift the culture. To improve current work environments or build new ones, the key questions should include:

  1. 1. Where are signs of failure in the safety, health and environmental process?
  2. 2. Who needs to be involved to identify work hazards, risks and behaviors and redesign our work environments?
  3. 3. How can we build new facilities and work procedures to meet standards of excellence?

David Ortlieb, PACE union's safety and health director, stated in the February 1999 The Paperworker, "Behavior-based safety is, in my opinion, a throwback to the old unsafe act theory. This theory targets workers as being almost solely responsible for industrial accidents. This doesn't square with the facts," Ortlieb said. "Behavior-based safety entirely ignores the unsafe effects of poorly maintained equipment and improperly designed processes."

There is truth to what Ortlieb said if a company uses a BBS observation and feedback process that addresses behaviors only as their primary means of intervention and improvement. We are not against BBS that includes a formalized observation and feedback process. But we believe that, by itself, it is limited in its ability to effectively address and correct all the factors that cause unsafe and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. This type of process also takes a long time to implement and succeed.

A holistic, integrated approach uses employee involvement problem-solving methods that can identify and solve problems with unsafe conditions and equipment. It also uses behavior observation and feedback as one in a variety of methods to support safe attitudes and behaviors, and to identify and resolve unsafe conditions, equipment, etc. on an ongoing basis. Management and line employees give and receive feedback regarding their safe and unsafe behaviors, as well as unsafe or hazardous conditions and equipment.

Fred Manuele, CSP, PE, has appropriately pointed out how a number of the leading BBS consultants never address conditions or the environment. Some, he said, understand that BBS removes resources away from real needs and never addresses them, thereby trying to create an impression that behavior-based observation and feedback is all that's needed. If this is the case, these programs should never be implemented and can do more harm then good.

In his publication, "A Guide to Accident Investigation," Howe stated "that the term 'accident' can be misleading. It is sometimes used to describe a tragic event that could not be anticipated, that was the result of chance." Almost all industrial accidents, Howe stated, have a cause(s) and are predictable, avoidable and preventable.

I couldn't agree more, especially today. Most accidents, injuries and environmental incidents could have been prevented. That's why addressing attitudes and behaviors at every level is so essential. Even cases of equipment failure can often be traced to a lack of preventative maintenance or failure to heed a warning sign leading to a breakdown. Were unsafe behaviors or conditions/equipment overlooked by supervisors or managers due to pressure to produce? Putting the focus on line/hourly employees only is analogous to blaming children for their problems without including parents and the home environment.

When people believe in the value of safety for themselves and others, they will make appropriate decisions and act safely and protect their own and others' health and the environment wherever they are.

Sidebar: Core Elements of Safety Improvement

  • Survey the work culture to determine prevailing attitudes, beliefs and behaviors related to safety, health and the environment. Confidential questionnaires, interviews and focus group meetings can be used.
  • Train employees in what causes people to become distracted, take risks or act unsafely. Address the underlying human mechanisms that cause people to place themselves at risk. Help employees develop self-observation and self-management skills to address their attitudes, thinking and behaviors, and the interpersonal skills to assist others.
  • Train leaders to communicate, empower, coach and counsel to help others change their attitudes and behaviors, while they serve as role models and agents for change. Bring in experts as needed.
  • Encourage and involve directly hourly employees, supervisors and managers, union and nonunion, to work together to develop meaningful processes for identifying unsafe conditions and their solutions, observation and feedback, support and empowerment, as well as activity measures.
  • Ensure the availability of resources to correct unsafe or hazardous situations or conditions.
  • Provide ongoing reinforcement and support. Even the best approaches can lose their strength and effectiveness over time.
  • Anticipate results in quality, productivity and morale. When employees perceive that they are respected, that their input matters and that they have more control over their destiny, there is greater trust in leadership and fewer grievances.
  • To ensure that these benefits are sustained and ingrained, we believe you must:
  • Address rules and procedures on an ongoing basis that are not clear, are not being followed or require updating.
  • Address system, structural and policy issues that stand in the way of achieving safety, health and environmental excellence.
  • Provide qualitative and quantitative measures and feedback on the organizations' progress throughout the change process.

Contributing Editor Michael Topf, MA, is president of the Topf Organization, a company providing leading-edge awareness and attitudinal and behavioral improvement processes for safety, health and environmental incident prevention. The Topf Organization can be reached at (888) 41-SAFOR or on the Web at

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