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Why You Should Include Behavior-Based Safety in your Safety Management Program

July 13, 2021
How to gain buy-in, avoid common pitfalls and manage an effective behavior-based safety management program.

Behavior-based safety (BBS) programs are well known among safety professionals. Their simplicity makes it easy to implement and a popular choice among organizations of all sizes and safety budgets. But simplicity should not be confused with simple.

Which is why, for some people, the benefits of BBS programs may seem elusive. How could you get concrete data from commonplace, everyday actions and decisions of your employees? Should resources only be put toward preventative measures and personal protective equipment (PPE), tangible assets, where the value they bring to safety is more apparent? This kind of thinking overlooks the common factor that is universal to all workplace injuries—people.

The success (or failure) of a BBS program is tied to people: what data they observe, how they discourage at-risk behaviors and enforce safe ones and what feedback they give. It also depends on what management does with observation data. Does the organization focus on at-risk behaviors or the processes that may cause them? Does it focus on quantity or quality of observations? How does the program evolve over time?

BBS programs are living documents that are guided and influenced by everyone at an organization. As such, they need to be tailored to a specific workplace. BBS programs are a tool for addressing safety risks, not a panacea for all safety problems. That said, organizations should revisit how and why they might use, or better use, BBS programs for measurable ways to improve workplace safety.

To get an insider look on how to manage an effective BBS management program, I spoke with three safety professionals: Joseph Braun, EHS manager at Ferrara Candy Company; John Peoples, global EHS manager at Huntsman Corporation; and Chad Rasmussen, EHS manager at Cardinal Health.

The Benefits of a BBS Program

A safety program that does not take special consideration of human attitudes, beliefs, ideas and feelings toward safety is missing a huge piece of the safety pie. BBS is about behavior—people’s behavior. Thus, if a BBS program is missing people’s attitudes, beliefs and feelings, it is missing the mark altogether. A behavior-based safety program takes a holistic approach to safety; it looks at the big picture, the safety environment of a workplace, and unearths the root causes of potential hazards and unsafe behaviors.

A safety program that focuses only on unsafe behaviors and hazards associated with a job can undergo the unfortunate result of becoming reactionary, addressing dangers after they have already had a negative impact on the organization and its employees. This defeats the purpose of a safety program altogether. To truly increase the positive outlook on the workplace safety environment, you will also need to focus on what works. What are the everyday actions of employees that are guaranteeing their safety and the safety of their peers?

"Not all hazards can be controlled by elimination or engineering,” Rasmussen says. “When employees need to be trusted to make decisions regarding their safety, the right choices need to be reinforced.” Identifying and positively reinforcing these actions is what an effective BBS program aims to do.

How to Measure the Success of a BBS Program

The most rigid and comprehensive safety inspection is useless if you do not have the data to show it is being followed 100% of the time and that it is yielding positive results. Two safety metrics with key leading indicators can support your frontline defense against workplace dangers.

Look Beyond Incident Data.

Safety is about preventing accidents and injuries in the workplace. If you are only implementing protective measures after an incident has occurred, you have already lost the safety game. Solely relying on data from preventable incidents such as accidents, injuries or deaths defeats the purpose of a safety program altogether.

“Injury numbers are lagging indicators, so I try to avoid using them wherever possible,” Rasmussen says. A well-designed BBS program aims to decipher the root causes of a potential injury or hazard.

Data is All About Utilization.

You can look at several key metrics to determine how well your program is protecting employees’ safety, but the most important metric might be participation. If your data shows a lack of participation and buy-in from employees, you will need to address that first. Without a wide enough scope and large enough data set, it can be difficult to address the root safety concerns within the organization that initially lead to incidents.

How to Increase BBS Participation, Buy-in and Effectiveness

A BBS program looks at one main aspect of the workplace environment: people. People are the most valuable resource you have to combat unsafe work conditions. People equipped with the knowledge and confidence to make the right safety decisions can prevent more accidents than any PPE. Here are three areas to focus on.

Buy-in and Participation

The value of a BBS program relies on the decisions and actions of the people and their involvement in the program. Its success hinges on participation. Gaining buy-in can be approached in several ways. Peoples says a top-down approach has worked for Huntsman Corporation, as the main key was to get buy-in and commitment from senior managers. After this was achieved, the number of participants grew, and more data was available that demonstrated the value of the program.

Set Monthly Goals

Braun says the best way to get employees involved with the program is to “set monthly goals and incentivize those goals.” This process could be as simple as requiring employees to submit a certain number of observations in each time frame. Incentives should also be used to positively reinforce good safety behavior, which will increase employee acceptance, participation and buy-in of the program.

Positive Feedback

A program that only points out mistakes, poor decisions and unsafe actions will appear intimidating to many workers. They may ask if this is just another system management can use to blame the workers for any accidents. Therefore, you must avoid focusing too much on the negatives at all costs.

Instead, there needs to be a focus and a reward system for smart safety decisions and practices. An effective BBS program “needs to be perceived as positive,” Rasmussen says. “Positive feedback breeds more of the right behaviors than negative feedback for the wrong behaviors. It also prevents the program from becoming a tattletale program.”

Overcoming Common Pitfalls of a BBS Program

There are several common pitfalls that a BBS program can run into. We’ve asked the experts how to avoid them:

The Blame Game

One of the most important things you can do as a safety manager is provide your employees with an open and non-judgemental forum to express their concerns and offer their ideas on how to improve workplace safety. Making your BBS program anonymous takes the focus away from the observer or employee and puts it on the action and the environment.

“All observations are treated as anonymous,” Braun says. “Discipline and blame cannot stem from an observation. They are used as teaching and learning tools only.”

Pencil Whipping

Pencil whipping is the act of certifying and approving documents or audits without knowing or reviewing what it is that is being approved.

Braun says that at Ferrara Candy Company they conduct a monthly spot check on observation cards. By selecting samples from many observations to be reviewed, you will be able to notice any pencil whipping. While reviewing these reports, Braun is also following up on the provided answers to see if there is substantive meaning behind the observations and root out anything unfounded.

Lack of Buy-In

Peoples says the most typical problem he sees is a lack of buy-in and commitment from the senior managers. The people in these roles may have the most experience and have been in the industry for the longest, but they may be more resistant to changing the way they do things.

Rasmussen says for that reason, senior management’s commitment to BBS programs is essential. “If the program just lives in one department or the people at the top stop caring about and/or pushing these types of programs, they will fail,” he says.

An Effective BBS Reporting Tool

Efficiently generating reports off the most relevant data is critical to improving the safety of an organization through Behavior Based Observation. There are many tools and resources that claim to help develop and implement BBS programs, but how do you know which to use?

Here are three things to look for, according to the experts:


Is your safety program understood by everyone, regardless of language barriers? Can you produce safety materials in multiple languages to unnecessarily avoid putting people at risk based on their culture or dialect? Consistency – getting the same information into everyone’s hands—will be a huge step toward improving the safety environment of the entire organization.


With new technologies available, employees no longer need to fill out observations on paper and mail them to the right directory or hand them off to someone who painstakingly punches them into an Excel file. Data can be collected and analyzed instantly with apps or digitally based safety observations forms, allowing safety professionals to make swift and data-informed decisions.


A complicated program or form may be all it takes for employees to completely reject a BBS program. Using a simple, standard and user-friendly platform to collect BBS observations will give your program a running start.

As the technology, understanding and knowledge of behavior-based safety programs grows, it will only become easier to make data-driven decisions and anticipate preventable incidents before they happen.

It may take time to develop a BBS program, but if planned extensively, followed rigidly and executed efficiently, a BBS program can have a positive impact on the workplace environment and employee well-being. “It provides an opportunity to recognize and reinforce high standards and good practices displayed by our teams,” Peoples says.

Hewitt Roberts is the CEO of Certainty Software, an EHS software solutions provider. Previously, he was the CEO of Entropy International. Roberts has been an active participant in the enterprise-level EHS software space since the early 1990s and has authored numerous papers and articles about EHS.

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