The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention (Part 1): From Behavior-Based to People-Based Safety

Both behavior-based and person-based factors must be addressed to improve workplace safety over the long-term.

by E. Scott Geller, Ph.D.

Behavior modification ... safety management ... attitude adjustment ... behavior-based safety ... culture change ... cognitive alignment ... person-based safety ... human engineering ... social influence. These are all terms used to address the human dynamics of injury prevention. Each can be linked to a set of principles, procedures or a consultant's service and each defines a particular approach to managing the human side of occupational safety.

Each of these terms, and most of the accompanying materials, are insufficient. They are either too narrow and restricting, or too broad and nondirective. Some focus entirely on behavior change, while others attempt to address vague and unobservable aspects of other people - such as attitudes and thoughts. Still others hope to directly target culture change.

All of these approaches are well-intentioned, and none are entirely wrong. The human dynamics of an organization include behaviors, attitudes, cognitions and the context (or culture) in which these aspects of people occur. However, some approaches are too equivocal or ambiguous to be practical, while others may be practical but are not sufficiently comprehensive.

The Solution is Not New

More than a decade ago, I proposed the need to address both behavior-based and person-based factors to improve workplace safety over the long-term1. This approach was termed "people-based safety," and entertained substituting empowerment, ownership and interpersonal trust for more traditional safety jargon such as top-down control, compliance and enforcement.

These new people-oriented concepts were accompanied by practical procedures. In fact, one consulting firm (Safety Performance Solutions) began implementing these procedures in 1995 under the popular label "behavior-based safety" (BBS). Systematic evaluations of these implementations have enabled successive refinements of procedures, as well as the discovery of guidelines for increasing the effectiveness and long-term impact of BBS interventions.

Today this approach is called People-Based Safety (PBS)2. The table to the right lists specific differences between the BBS versus the PBS approach to occupational safety. Some of these distinctions will be explained here, others will be explained in the second and third parts of this series, along with research-based rationale.

It's important to realize that PBS builds on the positive aspects of BBS. More specifically, PBS strategically integrates the best of behavior-based and person-based psychology in order to enrich the culture in which people work, thereby improving job satisfaction, work quality and production, interpersonal relationships and occupational safety and health.

In this first of a three-part series of articles on the essential qualities and procedures of PBS, we will start with its seven underlying principles. The academic label for this approach to occupational safety is "humanistic behaviorism"3.

Principle 1: Start with Observable Behavior

Like BBS, PBS focuses on what people do, analyzes why they do it and then applies a research-supported intervention strategy to improve relevant behavior. The improvement of others results from "acting" people into thinking differently, rather than targeting internal awareness or attitudes so as to "think" people into acting differently.

However, unlike BBS, PBS considers that people can observe their own thoughts and attitudes. Thus, people can think themselves into safer actions. In other words, self-management requires self-talk or thinking as well as self-directed behavior4.

Principle 2. Look for External and Internal Factors to Improve Behavior

We do what we do because of factors in both our external and internal worlds. While BBS deals with only external factors, PBS teaches people how to address their internal thoughts, perceptions and attitudes related to injury prevention.

A behavior analysis of work practices can pinpoint many external factors that encourage at-risk behavior and hinder safe behavior. However, it also is possible for individuals to conduct a self-evaluation of their own self-talk and selective perception regarding safety-related behavior, and choose to make appropriate adjustments.

Principle 3. Direct with Activators and Motivate with Consequences

Activators (or signals preceding behavior) only are as powerful as the consequences supporting the behavior. In other words, activators tell us what to do in order to receive a pleasant consequence or avoid an unpleasant consequence.

This reflects the ABC principle, with "A" for activator, "B" for behavior and "C" for consequence5. This principle is used to design interventions for improving behavior at individual, group and organizational levels. It is the intervention model for both PBS and BBS.

Principle 4. Focus on Positive Consequences to Motivate Behavior

Control by negative consequences reduces perceptions of personal freedom and responsibility6. People feel more free or empowered when they are working to achieve a pleasant consequence than when working to avoid an unpleasant consequence. Unfortunately, the common metric used to rank companies on their safety performance is "total recordable injury rate" (or an analogous count of losses), which puts people in a reactive mindset of "avoiding failure" rather than "achieving success." Both BBS and PBS provide proactive measures employees can use to prevent occupational injury.

It is possible to increase people's perceptions that they are working to achieve success rather than working to avoid failure. Even verbal behavior directed toward another person, perhaps as a statement of genuine approval or appreciation for a task well-done, can influence motivation in ways that increase perceptions of personal freedom and empowerment. But without a systematic measurement and evaluation process, it's impossible to know whether a particular intervention had beneficial impact. Hence the next basic premise of PBS, which also is a foundation of BBS:

Principle 5. Apply the Scientific Method to Improve Intervention

People's actions can be objectively observed and measured before and after an intervention process is implemented. This application of the scientific method provides critical feedback upon which to build an improvement process.

The acronym "DO IT" says it all: D = Define the target action to increase or decrease; O = Observe the target action during a pre-intervention baseline period to identify natural environmental and interpersonal factors influencing it (see Principle 1). To set improvement goals: I = Intervene to change the target action in desired directions; and T = Test the impact of the intervention procedure by continuing to observe and record the target action during and after the intervention program.

The systematic evaluation of a number of DO IT processes can lead to a body of knowledge worthy of integration into a theory. This is reflected in the next principle:

Principle 6. Use Theory to Integrate Information

After applying the DO IT process a number of times, distinct consistencies may be observed. Certain intervention techniques will work better in some situations than others, by some individuals than others or with some work practices than others.

It's useful to summarize relationships between intervention impact and specific interpersonal or contextual characteristics. The outcome will be a research-based theory of what is most cost-effective under given circumstances. Doing this exemplifies using theory to integrate information gained from systematic behavioral observation.

Principle 7. Consider the Internal Feelings and Attitudes of Others

Feelings and attitudes are influenced by the type of intervention procedure implemented, and such relationships require careful consideration by those who develop and deliver the intervention. This is the essence of empathic leadership taught by PBS, not by BBS.

The rationale for using more positive than negative consequences to motivate behavior (Principle 4) is based on the different feeling states resulting from using positive versus negative consequences to motivate behavior. Likewise, the way an intervention process is introduced and delivered can increase or decrease perceptions of empowerment, build or destroy interpersonal trust and facilitate or inhibit interdependent teamwork.

The next two parts of this series will specify the qualities of PBS that distinguish it from BBS and make this mission statement relevant and feasible.


1Geller, E. S. (1994). "Ten Principles for Achieving a Total Safety Culture." Professional Safety, 39(9), 18-24.

2Geller, E. S. (2005). "People-Based Safety: The Source." Virginia Beach, Va.: Coastal Training Technologies Corp.

3Geller, E. S. (1995). "Integrating Behaviorism and Humanism for Environmental Protection." Journal of Social Issues, 51, 179-195.

4Watson, D. C., & Tharp, R. C. (1997). "Self-Directed Behavior: Self-Modification for Personal Adjustment" (Seventh Edition), Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

5Geller, E. S. (2001). The Psychology of Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press.

6Skinner, B. F. (1971). "Beyond Freedom and Dignity." New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sidebar: Distinctions Between BBS & PBS

Behavior-Based Safety

  • Only observable behavior
  • Stimuli "trigger" behavior
  • Interpersonal coaching
  • Habits are ideal
  • Thinking not addressed
  • External factors only
  • Other-directed accountability
  • Perceptions not addressed
  • Personality not considered
  • Attitudes not addressed

People-Based Safety

  • Observables and unobservables
  • Choice is critical
  • Interpersonal and self-coaching
  • Mindful fluency is best
  • Thinking is addressed
  • External and internal factors
  • Self-directed responsibility
  • Perceptions are addressed
  • Personality is addressed
  • Attitudes are addressed

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the Department of Psychology. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the World Academy of Productivity and Quality. He is past editor of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (1989-92), current associate editor (since 1983) of Environment and Behavior and consulting editor for Journal of Safety Research, Behavior and Social Issues, Behavior Analyst Digest and the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. Geller has authored 27 books, 42 book chapters, 38 training manuals, 192 magazine articles and more than 300 research articles addressing the development and evaluation of behavior-change interventions to improve quality of life.

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