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Is Behavioral Safety the Missing Piece?

Replacing hazardous materials with safer ones is an important strategy for protecting workers and the environment.


Business leader David N. Terhune is "disappointed and frustrated" with his company's efforts to implement total quality management (TQM). But he loves behavior-based safety (BBS), and here's why:

"I believe it's magical," said Terhune, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Applied Extrusion Technologies Inc., a New Castle, Del., plastic films manufacturer. "You involve everybody in safety, get them to take responsibility for their actions, and build a culture where safety is a value. It's a blueprint for changing other things, such as quality and customer service. The process, not just safety, is the jewel."

Such enthusiasm from top management gives behavioral safety formidable momentum. "BBS has moved into the mainstream of the safety field," declares Thomas R. Krause, Ph.D., CEO of Behavioral Science Technology, Ojai, Calif. "It can become a new standard of excellence." He admits, however, that it could also become a management fad, with "a temporary burst of popularity, followed by not much substance that is sustainable."

Safety consultant and author Dan Petersen, Ph.D., PE, CSP, of Tempe, Ariz., warns against using behavioral safety as a replacement for a multifaceted safety program. "The safety field has a tradition of looking for magic pills," he said. "Reinforcing behavior is very powerful at the shop floor level, but it is just one tool in the tool box."

Not everyone is impressed, however. Jim Howe, CSP, assistant director of the health and safety department for the United Auto Workers, complains that behavior-based safety "turns the hierarchy of controls upside down." BBS, he said, is "outdated quality, where you constantly inspect and observe for it, and, when you don't get it, you blame the workers and the supervisors." He said resources would be better spent on hazard elimination, engineering controls, "error-forgiving systems," improved tools and skills training.

Terhune, Krause, Petersen and Howe were among the speakers at "Light Up Safety in the New Millennium: A Behavioral Safety Symposium" earlier this year in Orlando, Fla. The two-day symposium, sponsored by the American Society of Safety Engineers, drew more than 850 attendees. It provided answers, and more questions, about one of the safety field's hottest topics.

1. Who and what are driving the behavioral safety movement?

The idea that employee behavior is a critical factor in accidents and safety performance is not new. In the 1930s, H.W. Heinrich's research concluded that 88 percent of industrial accidents were caused primarily by unsafe acts, as opposed to unsafe conditions. At about the same time, B.F. Skinner laid the groundwork for behavioral science to observe what people do, analyze why, and apply intervention to reinforce correct behaviors and change incorrect behaviors.

Since the 1980s, a small but influential group of consultants, notably psychologists, has been pushing the safety field to emphasize employee behavior and attitudes. They promote "empowerment," "observation and feedback," "actively caring," "coaching," "positive reinforcement" and "interdependence."

Many employers have reached a plateau with their injury rates and workers' compensation costs. The traditional tools of engineering controls, program management and training are not necessarily working for continuous improvement.

The fact that psychologists, not safety professionals, are driving BBS is "a sign that safety professionals are 30 years behind the times," according to Petersen, an engineer first who has a graduate degree in psychology.

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., a psychologist who teaches at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va., said that a society of safety engineers hosting a psychology-oriented event is a good sign for the field.

The 33,000-member ASSE does not endorse a BBS approach to safety, however. Richard Beohm, PE, CSP, ARM, administrator of ASSE's Engineering Division, told Occupational Hazards that the behavioral and technical aspects of safety "fit together like a puzzle. I think the balance is 80 percent, 20 percent - maybe 90-10 - in favor of the technical. The psychologists probably see it the other way around."

2. What is behavior-based safety?

Every symposium speaker and many attendees had their own definitions and assumptions for behavioral safety. Petersen defined it as a management system that:

  • Defines the behaviors needed throughout the organization.
  • Ensures each person understands the required behaviors.
  • Measures whether the required behaviors are used.
  • Reinforces required behaviors on a daily and hourly basis.

Geller, founder of Safety Performance Solutions, Blacksburg, Va., said the narrow view of BBS is that it is a "tool or program to manage behavior ... using merely observation and feedback." In fact, he claimed, it is a "general approach to cultivating an injury-free culture."

BST's Krause said behavioral science is a natural extension of TQM programs, but "BBS works even where TQM fails." Krause said more than 50 percent of TQM programs fail to meet their goals, but about 90 percent of BBS implementations are successful.

But Thomas Creswell, a retired safety manager with more than 40 years of field experience, told Occupational Hazards that BBS offers more hype than hope. "It deals in a special, limited way with an issue - working with people - that is just good management," said Creswell, a founder of the 30-year-old National Safety Management Society (NSMS), Weaverville, N.C. "Behavioral safety sounds good, it feels good, but it doesn't work very often."

Creswell caused a controversy recently with comments in an NSMS newsletter that "I kicked more behavioral scientists off my facilities than you can shake a stick at." He said the emphasis on individual behaviors and attitudes stifles the willingness to address technical and management "systems deficiencies."

3. How do you know if BBS might work for you?

Petersen said companies with excellent engineering controls but which are stuck on a statistical plateau probably have the most to gain from behavioral safety. "You can't idiot-proof everything," he said. "If you try, the underlying assumption is that all of your employees are idiots. They're not; they're humans."

Terry McSween, Ph.D., founder of Quality Safety Edge, Missouri City, Texas, said BBS probably would not work in "authoritarian organizations." He said it would "border on unethical" to implement BBS in a company that has made little effort on engineering controls.

BST's Krause claimed that BBS is a "tool that can be used by most everybody." Since the early 1980s, he has been involved in more than 600 "implementations" - at world-class workplaces and at ones just beginning to pay attention to safety.

4. How varying are the approaches?

There are three "camps" under the umbrella of behavior-based safety. They focus on Culture, Attitudes or Behaviors.

The Culture approach is the most ambitious and highest-risk. Changing culture requires a long-term effort to evaluate, then change an organization's core values and guiding principles. For safety, that can mean convincing employees and managers that safety and productivity are equally important, according to Steven Simon, Ph.D., co-founder of Culture Change Consultants, Larchmont, N.Y.

"Start with the culture," Simon said. "Without a good safety culture, you're planting a good seed [a safe attitude or behavior] in the desert."

The Attitude camp focuses on what people believe and "know" in their hearts, said Michael Topf, M.A., president of the Topf Organization, King of Prussia, Pa. It addresses what people do consciously and subconsciously. "It helps people to discover things for themselves," Topf said. "If they believe personal protective equipment is needed and it works, they will wear it. They'll think safety everywhere."

The third camp, Behavior, says attitude (what people think) is not as important as what they say and do, McSween said. Geller recommends focusing on behavior because it is the easiest way to get started. "You can see it and act on it," he said. "Create a system of accountability for actions, and people will become responsible."

5. What are the key implementation elements?

BBS consultants advocate planning a strategy and following a model. Krause said it often starts with the "vision" of a few people who see a need for a new direction. Then comes an evaluation period, where key players determine if the timing is right and how BBS might fit into the organization. This also includes collecting information from and about consultants (because few employers start these programs on their own).

Companies that decide to go ahead must determine the roles and responsibilities of top management, middle management, supervisors and employees. Most companies form a task force or steering committee and give their program a catchy name or acronym. "Never use the consultant's name for it," Geller advised. "Involve everybody, and make it something they can identify with."

Training for all groups is also important, Geller said. He said it must provide employees with the "motivation, as well as the methods, to change." Program facilitators need to help top managers find ways to support and participate in the process, he said.

Most BBS efforts include some type of analysis tool, such as a culture survey or behavioral safety observations. Krause recommends standardizing a list of critical behaviors - based on each location's safety and health concerns - then evaluating "percent-safe" behaviors. All employees can be trained to do self-evaluations and provide observation and feedback to co-workers.

Petersen said observations and follow-up must include an analysis of the root causes of unsafe behaviors. For example, an employee may not wear his safety glasses while checking pressure gauges. The observer should ask the worker why and look for environmental conditions that might prevent eyewear use. The root cause may be that the gauges are too hard to read, that the eyewear fogs up, that the lighting is poor, or that the gauge is too far away.

"Unsafe work is very logical in some environments," Petersen said. "We have to look beyond the one unsafe act."

6. How should safe behaviors be reinforced?

Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D., founder of Aubrey Daniels & Associates of Atlanta, believes reinforcement is often overlooked. "It is the lock and the key," he said. "You can't be proud of yourself unless you know someone is proud of you."

Positive reinforcement can take forms ranging from leaders of the BBS process practicing safe behaviors to co-workers thanking and encouraging each other. Daniels said, "Avoid saying, 'Good job, but....' That is perceived as criticism. Reinforce and then shut up. Keep the corrections that are needed separate."

Whether safety awards and incentives should be part of the reinforcement effort is open to debate. Daniels said such programs are "delayed reinforcers," but they can have a positive impact if "they tell a story or anchor a memory."

He said safety banquets, picnics and other events should be used as an "opportunity to relive an accomplishment. By reliving it, we bring it forward. It keeps a positive experience current." The problem with most safety celebrations, he said, is that "management talks the most." Daniels said employees should be the focus "to tell people how we did it."

BST's Krause, on the other hand, said safety awards and incentives are "almost always wrong." He believes incentive programs lead employees not to report injuries and accidents or encourage them to do certain activities just to get a prize.

7. How do you know if BBS is working?

Although BBS focuses on so-called upstream measures of safety performance, experts believe a good process will reduce the downstream injury and illness rates. Success can also be evaluated from results of culture surveys and percent-safe and at-risk behavior statistics.

Geller said the evaluation of the process also depends on how people define success. "There should never be a total failure," Geller said. "Everybody gets something out of the process, even if it's just a greater awareness. Maybe the best you can do right now is to get close to what you want."

McSween said it is not unusual for organizations implementing a behavioral safety process to take "two steps forward and one step back." He said some goals, such as increasing the number of observers, may be exceeded, while others, such as steadily increasing safe behaviors, fall short.

"If we're truly honest, we would say that all of the implementations are a failure in terms of what was possible," Daniels said. "Organizations should be easy to please, but hard to satisfy."

8. Why do BBS processes fail?

Experts at the symposium said BBS processes have a failure rate between 0 and 50 percent. Failure and shortcomings can occur in a number of ways:

  • Giving up on the process too soon and expecting success too quickly. Krause said significant, lasting behavioral change requires at least 18 months; Simon said a true culture change takes five to seven years.
  • Forcing the chosen BBS process to move forward when it might be better to take a step back and consider slowing or varying the implementation.
  • Not having a champion or not gaining support and involvement thoughout the organization. A champion keeps people moving and focused, but, if the champion is the whole program, it leaves if he or she leaves, Krause said.
  • Programs that identify at-risk behaviors as the fault of employees, hourly or management, will not be well-received. Petersen's advice: "Don't focus on faults; look at the facts" - what happened, what people saw, what they said. Look at everyone's behavior, including management's.
  • Some companies forget about managing the overall safety program. "You are not off the hook as a manager," Petersen said. "Don't sit around waiting for things to happen and for employees to tell you about them."

Krause said every BBS process goes through a "struggle" phase: People start to wonder if it is worth the trouble, if the activities can be sustained, and if other projects deserve a higher priority. "The successful companies have managers and informal leaders who are willing to address the issues," he said. Struggle is usually followed by "renewal," where the process becomes fun again and people believe it works.

9. What kind of investment is required?

Some behavioral safety proponents have portrayed it as simple, nontechnical and common sense. Most experts, however, steer away from the idea that it is a low-cost or short-term program.

In fact, BBS implementations in medium-size facilities can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ongoing training, steering committee work and behavioral safety observations are a major resource commitment. Furthermore, because BBS is a never-ending process of continous improvement, those commitments could last forever.

BBS opponent Howe of the United Auto Workers said the long term "builds huge costs into the system. Management likes behavioral safety because there is a lot of activity, but only high-level engineering controls really last."

Krause said a limited, short-term approach to BBS is seldom workable. "At some point, you have to be willing to implement all elements training, observations, feedback, reinforcement, action plans and keep them going," he said.

Most BBS proponents admit, however, that behavioral safety is still just one piece of a complicated puzzle. As a result, other processes for engineering controls, OSHA compliance and program management also have to function at a high level.

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