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Making the Most of Behavioral-Based Safety

Ron Bowles is Director of Operations for Strategic Safety Associates (SSA) and has more than 20 years of experience in safety management and worker relations. He also helps companies improve their behavioral-based safety (BBS) program policies.

In this interview, Bowles provides background on BBS and explains how organizations can best implement BBS into their workplace safety programs.

Based on your experience in safety management, how has BBS contributed to the rise or decline of workplace injury or illness?

It has done a little of both. I have participated in major introductions of BBS observation processes in the 1980s and 1990s. During that time, I witnessed many organizations implement different types of observation processes. In some organizations, the implementation is well placed, offering new injury prevention tools and enlisting employees as safety resources. If the organization’s culture is advanced enough and the BBS process is integrated into the existing system, then the program is usually successful.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many other organizations in which BBS programs are misused and/or misunderstood. In these organizations, BBS is sometimes used as a club, with some workers being punished for working “unsafely.” Another common problem I have seen is processes that use long and general “laundry list” observation forms that fail to “pinpoint” behaviors in behaviorally specific terms. The result of these vague observations is a process that collects and posts meaningless data.

Often, these organizations have the misguided idea that an observation process will be a miracle solution that will fix all of their safety problems. These same organizations then neglect other important aspects of their safety system. In these cases, implementing a BBS observation process seldom decreases injuries and can even detract, or distract, from pursuing other critical safety initiatives.

BBS programs rely on a worker’s willingness to report an accident knowing they will be held responsible and be labeled “an unsafe worker.” In your experience, is it difficult to trust the BBS data collected or to consider it accurate for workplace injury statistics?

At best, BBS observation data represents infrequent sampling of any specific worker’s behavior. The data collected is not a measurement of routine behavior but of observed behavior. In my experience, this is okay, because the real value of an observation process comes from encouraging a worker (or workers) to work consciously. This occurs as a product of the interaction with the observer and the coaching feedback. Posting the observation results for an entire workgroup provides only very general benchmarking feedback on behavior and on the continued activity level within the observation process. Observation statistics, in and of themselves, usually indicate trends, not specifics.

Since BBS programs rely heavily on worker behavior, do management teams dodge responsibility for the safety of their workers?

Some organizations evade their responsibility out of the misguided expectation that an observation process will “fix” all of their safety issues. A more appropriate framework is one where an observation process is just one tool for improving safety. In this model, management has significant responsibility for safety. Also, as observation processes have evolved, I see fewer designs that leave management and supervisory behavior totally out of their process the way many early implementations did.

Monitors for BBS programs are fellow workers instead of outside professionals. In your experience, does this practice ever result in biased data?

I think conversation is more important than observation, and collecting observation data is a secondary product of the observation. Ideally, observers should tell the worker what they are looking for before starting the observation. This sets the stage for the worker to act consciously and opens the door for a discussion of the risks and of the safest course of action for a specific task. With this approach, the goal is not so much about recording and reporting accurate data as it is about creating an opportunity for safety communication between the worker and the observer.

If the goal is accurate data on safe or at-risk performance, then the monitor must be separate from the work activity. However, this approach is less effective at changing behavior positively, and it may lead to pushback from those being observed.

In your experience, do companies investigate why a worker is labeled as an “unsafe worker” or do they simply react based on the label? Are there long-term consequences? Please elaborate.

It depends on the organization. If several workers are working “unsafely” in a similar area, then the organization should look at what may be wrong with the work design and at what the strongest consequences are for at-risk behavior in that area. In this scenario, there is probably some reason that the at-risk behavior makes sense to the workgroup. Obviously, if the antecedents and consequences continue to support at-risk behaviors, these behaviors will persist. In this situation, blaming an individual worker (or workers) will not bring about significant improvement.

It is critical that this analysis of antecedents and consequences occurs and that corrective action is taken. This course of action is one marker of a highly developed observation process and helps to shift the focus off of blaming the worker (or workers).

With alternatives such as the hierarchy of controls, why haven’t more companies shifted towards other means of ensuring safe equipment and safer working environments?

Of course, organizations should look at work conditions first. Eliminating hazards and shielding workers from exposures should always be the starting point. Only when this has happened, can an observation program work effectively.

Has BBS outlived its usefulness and is now being forced into implementation or does it still have completely useful attributes?

Unfortunately, some organizations have used poorly designed programs or programs that were behavior-based in name only, leading some to have a negative perception of BBS. However, behavior remains a critical focus for effective safety systems, even if the hierarchy of controls has been followed. For instance, consider driving to and from work. Auto manufacturers continue to engineer safer cars and more and more controls are put into place, yet we have not been able to eliminate wrecks. Factors like time pressure, boredom, inattention, poor perception of risks, etc. still lead to behaviors like driving at excessive speeds, making quick lane changes, accelerating through changing lights, tailgating, etc. These same kinds of factors impact our behavior in the workplace and thus there will always be a need to address behavior. Consequently, BBS observation processes remain an effective tool to help ensure a safe workplace.

Ron Bowles is Director of Operations for Strategic Safety Associates, Inc. (SSA). He has more than 20 years of experience in safety management, training and consulting. He has also spent 15 years working with many organizations to improve their BBS programs and has helped address issues regarding worker safety procedures and improved worker environments.

Prior to joining SSA, Bowles created many safety improvement processes, including:

  • Developing training and systems to assist organizations in identifying their “Level of Accepted Risk” and strategies to help them build and encourage a culture of personal control for safety
  • Designing and leading the implementation of several BBS processes with a successful history of initiating statistical and cultural change within organizations throughout the U.S.

He also speaks at many regional and national conferences and is an active member of ASSE’s Mount St. Helens Section.