HOP vs BBS

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by James E. Leemann Ph.D.

The origins of behavior-based safety (BBS) are attributed to a number of different individuals in the fields of behavior analysis, organizational behavior, psychology, safety, and so on.  Regardless of who you attribute the beginnings of BBS to, most would agree the origins of applied BBS came into fruition in the mid- to late 1970s. So for more than three decades companies have been applying BBS with varying degrees of success and failure.

Finally, attention is beginning to turn away from focusing on employees’ behaviors to accepting the fact that employees are error prone.  For entirely too long, management has obsessed with unsafe employee behaviors.  Indeed, in some settings this management obsession has resulted in testy relationships with employees.

At this year’s 30th annual meeting of the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association, Ms. Ann R. Klee, GE’s vice president of environmental, health, and safety, presented GE’s recently embraced focus on Human and Organizational Performance (HOP).  For me, it is refreshing and exciting that a Fortune 10 company has finally adopted HOP as an operating philosophy.

HOP is the systems thinking approach to tackling the nuances of improving safety performance.  Frankly, in many respects, HOP is the archenemy of BBS. Most BBS consultants will view HOP as a nemesis, which in part, is the reason HOP has not gained a lot of traction. In fact, eventually HOP could put many, if not all, BBS consultants out of business. 

It is far easier for safety consultants to focus on people and their behaviors than to focus on the risks associated with mechanical devices.  Few safety consultants know enough about the mechanical devices and processes employees operate to even find the risks.  Additionally, most consultants would rather spend time in an air-conditioned client’s conference room playing behavior-based kum-ba-ya groupthink games versus walking around in a plant helping employees learn how to find risks in their work environment.  Plus, management likes BBS because it focuses on the employee — not the mechanical devices their employees must operate.  Eliminating risks from mechanical devices is far more expensive than fixing employees’ behaviors, right?

It makes sense

HOP makes far more sense as the approach to actually improve safety versus sticking to BBS.  BBS is all about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Consider the following situation. As a safety professional, you work at a manufacturing plant with 2,000 employees producing more than 400 products from 100 different processes.  Safety performance at the plant has been less than stellar even though the plant has been relying upon BBS to improve safety.  During these years, several BBS consultants have been contracted to deliver their brand of BBS, and for a period of time safety performance seems to improve.  Eventually, safety performance degrades to an unacceptable level.  Faced with increasing pressure from management to improve safety, you decide to consider a different approach that focuses on the system and not the people.  The basis for your decision centers on engaging employees in identifying the risks and impediments that prevent them from working safely as opposed to fixing their behaviors through BBS.

Think about it, if you were this safety professional, would you rather fix the systems (i.e., 100 processes) or fix the behaviors of 2,000 employees? Keep in mind, the systems tend to stay the same day in and day out; whereas the behaviors of the employees change from one day to the next depending upon the externalities they are encountering at work, home, and on the way to work.

Strong Defenses

Fixing the system and not trying to fix the people is the basic principle of HOP philosophy. HOP is all about protecting people, products, and property from human error. As Ms. Klee pointed out in her presentation, HOP starts by recognizing that human error is part of the human condition and is inevitable. People work in the context of systems. Safety means your systems properly defend against human error, which translates into creating strong defenses.1

Ms. Klee used the analogy of traffic roundabouts to make her point about focusing on the system instead of the person. Traffic roundabouts force the driver to become fully engaged in successfully navigating through what used to be an intersection controlled by STOP signs. Recall the last time you encountered a traffic roundabout; I would guess you paid closer attention to traversing through the roundabout to continue your journey versus the last STOP sign encountered.

Gaining union acceptance

Kurt Krueger, CIH, is GE’s health and safety programs leader, and serves as the leader of GE’s HOP initiative.2 According to Mr. Krueger, HOP’s origins came from its application in the aviation and nuclear power industries where it is known as Human Performance (HP). Krueger noted that the aviation and nuclear version of HP could not be directly applied in GE. To gain acceptance with union health and safety leaders, GE branded their program Human and Organizational Performance to ensure management involvement was obvious and to convey to employees, “HOP was not BBS on steroids,” he said. Additionally, GE’s culture is more receptive to a bottom-up approach than a top-down dictate.

Krueger shared that HOP’s introduction to GE involved a lot of experimentation, which was facilitated by the experiences of early HOP players, such as Alcoa and ExxonMobil.  For the past ten years, even though GE has placed emphasis on lowering OSHA recordables — achieving an 80 percent reduction — high-severity incidents and injuries remained steady over this timeframe.  In part, this prompted GE to look for a different approach, leading to HOP.

Key principles of HOP Krueger provided were beliefs such as people make mistakes, people don’t think that what they are doing at the moment will lead to an injury, you can’t explain failure with failure, think forward, follow procedures exactly and not much will get done, take two minutes before you are ready to proceed, bad stuff happens faster than we can react to it, seek out high-risk points, and look to eliminate vulnerability at critical set points, etc.

Changing Conversations

Krueger explained that HOP has allowed GE to talk differently to employees.  Instead of being critical, leaders and supervisors question employees who have experienced an incident: “How did what you did make sense to you at the time of the incident?” “Was the work set up to force you to take short cuts?” “What are you most afraid of at work?”

Krueger went on to state GE has become very risk-oriented, expressing a strong bias toward looking for “error traps” where a situation is created in which the employee does not have control of the circumstances — leading to being set up for failure. Often the employee will improvise in order to accomplish the work and end up having an accident. For Krueger, building capacity to find risk and potential events that may surprise you has been integral in the success of GE’s HOP program.