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Behavior-Based Safety: The Pros and Cons

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construction-worker.jpgBehavior-based safety (commonly referred to as BBS) relies heavily on the psychology of learning and motivation through stimulus and response as a result of workplace observation and/or near miss reporting and corresponding feedback. BBS principles were founded on Herbert William Heinrich's research, which suggested that 88 percent of accidents result from unsafe acts committed by employees rather than unsafe conditions.

The belief that employees can be motivated to behave safely through positive reinforcement (e.g. incentive programs, motivational posters and bulletin boards, posting the number of accumulated incident/injury free days), which is believed to be more effective and lasting than negative reinforcement, is a cornerstone of BBS. These programs do away with the notion that safety is solely the safety manager’s concern and rather assigns safety responsibility to everyone at every level in the organization. BBS not only relies heavily on both employee and management involvement in the safety program, but also holds that a robust safety culture featuring a focus on the process rather than the outcome and positive activators to produce behavior modification is the most efficient approach to workplace safety.

The emergence and acceptance of BBS programs has caused great debate between proponents of traditional safety programs, which focus on regulatory compliance and hazardous condition abatement, and those who are proponents of the BBS approach.

Management Support

One of my favorite authors, John Maxwell, coined the phrase, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This is a very appropriate statement when considering BBS programs. BBS programs are doomed to fail unless they are comprehensively supported by company management.

BBS programs are highly dependent on trust. Company management must trust their employees to adhere to the BBS program principals of observation and reporting and employees must trust management enough to report hazardous exposures and observations without fear of reprisal.

In considering the importance of management support, I am reminded of a construction program I worked on a few years back where the prime contractor’s entire program was based on BBS. While the program was an excellent one in theory, it lacked complete management buy in. As a result, the program struggled to maintain industry average loss rates and ended as mediocre at best.

BBS Criticisms

Opponents of BBS programs point to studies that contradict the findings of Heinrich and consider BBS to be based on unreliable science. Another criticism of BBS is the belief that the attention on safe behavior with a reliance on employee reporting will create fear among employees arguing that employees may feel inhibited against reporting injuries and/or near misses for fear of being blamed for causing them.

In that same vein, some opponents of BBS maintain that BBS programs are counterproductive to risk management efforts as many injuries go unreported, which leads to larger claims. In other words, injuries may go untreated until further injuries or complications surface. Some opponents of BBS feel that is more practical to correct a hazardous condition than it is to change human behavior.

Finally, BBS programs tend to struggle in industries with a high turnover rate (e.g. construction), as there often is too little time to develop relationships with the vital trust necessary for a successful BBS program.

Success in Moderation

In my opinion, workplaces that implement strictly BBS programs rely on too many variables (such as management support/involvement and employee trust) for the success of their respective programs. Like with most things, my experience has taught me that success often is found in the middle of a blended approach of the utilization BBS and traditional principles to establish a solid overall program.

EHS Today guest blogger Jason Townsell, CSP, was named the 2010 Future Leader in EHS. He works for AECOM as a program safety manager at San Diego International Airport. The postings on this site represent the author's personal opinions and statements and do not represent or reflect the opinions, positions or strategies of AECOM Technology Corp. or its subsidiaries or affiliated entities.

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