Skip navigation

Behavioral Safety: Looking Beyond the Worker

Behavioral safety leaders are taking a broader view of what is needed to achieve a safe workplace.

Too many speakers and writers have created the impression that behavioral safety is the panacea, by itself, that will solve all safety problems. They do the world a disservice. Yet, things are happening in behavioral safety, and there is a significant change in the rhetoric.

Recent speeches and papers presented by representatives of two prominent consulting organizations indicate that there are conceptual transitions in progress that significantly redefine what has been said and written previously about behavioral safety. These organizations are Behavioral Science Technology (BST), for which Dr. Thomas R. Krause is chief executive officer, and Safety Performance Solutions, for which Dr. E. Scott Geller is a senior partner and a founding member.

What's happening? Some of the key players in the behavioral safety field now seem to:

  • Accept that behavioral safety is one element in an overall safety initiative.
  • Have abandoned the oft-stated premise that 85 percent to 95 percent of accidents are principally caused by unsafe acts of workers.
  • Recognize that, for most hazard-related incidents, there are multiple causal factors.
  • Agree that analyses of the data collected on at-risk behavior must be made to determine the diverse sources of the causal factors.
  • Accept that application of the hierarchy of controls is the most effective means of reducing risk.
  • Promote the principle offered by W. Edwards Deming that "performance does not come from the individual ... but from the system."
  • Recognize that the principle focus for safety improvement should not be on the psychology of correcting worker behavior; rather, the focus should be on the design of the workplace, the work methods and the management systems.

These changes in concept address many of the points raised by those who have found behavioral safety, as it has been presented, difficult to accept. They will serve to reduce the confusion about what behavioral safety is and is not. Is there confusion? That is attested to by the writing of some of the key players in behavioral safety.


At the National Safety Congress in October 1999, BST's Krause addressed the management and labor perspectives of behavior-based safety. Krause suggested that:

  • A good attempt should be made to get union leadership buy-in before implementing behavior-based safety.
  • Management and union personnel should understand that behavior-based safety is not a substitute for good engineering, facilities, training and the use of the hierarchy of controls.
  • Emphasis should be given to the effect behavior-based safety has on getting things done, improving safety systems and problem solving.

In his presentation, Krause presented a slide that contained the following information:

Note that barriers to safe behavior deriving from management systems and from facilities and equipment total 73 percent. That suggests that the greatest risk reduction will come from attention to those two subjects and that the emphasis following the identification of at-risk behaviors should be to determine the reality of their causal factors -- the antecedents. Does this suggest the next step in the evolution of the applied practice of behavioral safety?

A reference by Krause to Deming was also of major significance. Deming's reputation in quality management spanned the world. Several speakers on behavior-based safety have referred in the past to Deming's work as though he would support what they were presenting. This author doesn't think so. Using quotes from Deming suggests that Krause is reorienting his approach to behavior-based safety. As an example, Krause accurately quoted Deming as having said: "Performance does not come from the individual ... but from the system."

This recognition of a premise that permeates Deming's writings is important. Because performance comes from the system and not from the individual, the proper outcome of behavior-based safety should be to improve the system. Accepting that premise will be a bit revolutionary for worker-focused, behavior-based safety consultants who have stressed changes in worker behavior and positive reinforcement as solutions to safety problems.

In his speech, Krause presented a markedly different role for behavioral safety.

This past June, at the Professional Development Conference held by the American Society of Safety Engineers, Krause carried his ideas further. He said:

  • The behavioral process is a method for continuously improving facilities, equipment, design and management system issues.
  • Behavioral-based safety should not be seen as the entire safety system, but rather as one component of many.
  • The situation in which the injury is actually caused by the worker, while existent, is extremely rare.
  • The statement that 80 percent to 95 percent of accidents are caused by unsafe acts is wrong, because the primary causes come from management systems and the facility.
  • The great majority of actual causes of injuries is an interaction between the worker and the facility.
  • This point of interaction is the working interface, which should be the subject of attention.
  • Figuring out how the worker interacts with the system changes the focus of improvement from the worker to systems that enable safe behavior.

To say that the focus of improvement is not the worker but systems that enable safe behavior is a major conceptual change in behavioral safety. Can it be doubted that Krause presents a substantial shift in applied behavioral safety concepts?

Conceptual Transition

Dr. Earl Blair is an associate of Geller at Safety Performance Solutions. In the August 1999 issue of Professional Safety, Blair lists 12 "myths" about behavioral safety and offers his refutation. Comments in this article that display a notably different thinking about behavioral safety are excerpted.

Myth 1: Behavior-based safety doesn't address system causes of injury.

Reality: Behavior-based safety can and should address system causes. In fact, it is an effective way to determine root causes of injuries, at-risk behavior or hazardous conditions. Once at-risk behaviors and conditions are identified, system barriers to safe work performance can be identified and removed.

Myth 4: Behavior-based safety has become myopic.

Reality: Some critics contend that behavioral safety has become myopic. Is this criticism true? It can be if applications are narrow and misguided. Behavior is just one aspect of safety. In the process of focusing on behavior, other key components -- such as engineering, monitoring and machine guarding -- should not be ignored. Efforts to reduce injuries must be comprehensive.

Myth 6: Behavior interventions are the least-effective interventions.

Reality: Most safety professionals agree with the traditional safety hierarchy: 1) engineer the hazard out; 2) control the hazard; 3) guard against the hazard; and 4) use training and personal protective equipment. Even though the behavioral component is low in this hierarchy, it must not be overlooked.


Quite certainly, there are transitions in progress that place behavioral safety properly in the context of an overall safety initiative. In On the Practice of Safety (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), I wrote: "This essay pleads for a balanced approach that gives a proper emphasis within the practice of safety to causal factors deriving from design management, operations management and task performance."

Without question, there is a place within the practice of safety for the culture-driven behavioral safety model, which seeks to improve a safety culture and achieve a well-structured and managed safety initiative, and a worker-focused, behavior-based approach that augments a well-established safety system.

In either case, we should consider the reality of the source of risk problems, whether they are management systems-based, worker behavior-based or both. If the risk problem is in the system, a culture and systems modification solution should be sought. If task performance problems are truly behavioral, consideration should be given to resolving those problems through prudently selected behavior change techniques. For most risk situations, causal factors and methods of resolving them will be multifaceted.

Fred A. Manuele, CSP, PE, is president of Hazards, Limited. He serves as a trustee of The Foundation for Safety and Health and as a member of the advisory committee to the Institute for Safety Through Design. A second edition of his book On the Practice of Safety was published in 1997. He is co-editor of Safety Through Design, published by the National Safety Council in 1999. He was given the Distinguished Service to Safety Award by the National Safety Council, was awarded the honor of Fellow by the American Society of Safety Engineers and was inducted into the Safety and Health Hall of Fame International.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.