Is it time to dump your behavior based safety program?

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by Lance Roux

I attended a really great safety conference recently that included a panel discussion of two thought leaders in safety. The topic centered around two huge topics in the safety field: Behavior Based Safety (BBS) approach to safety improvement, and Human & Organizational Performance (HOP). The objective of the discussion was to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

For those like me who’ve been around for a while, BBS programs have long been a staple in safety programs. It has been promoted as a driving force to change safety cultures within organizations. The basic idea of BBS is that workers are the problem and therefore must be corrected in order to improve safety. This approach has been controversial in terms of its effectiveness for several reasons. All too often, BBS is a required program that service companies must implement in order to work for their clients. More importantly, it’s not a choice that top management gets to make. Without top management support, we all know where that leaves the effectiveness of a safety program. Another problem is that many times these programs are thrown in place quickly with little or no employee training. To top it off, these programs are often improperly managed. The data is either pencil whipped, or not trended and shared at all.

However, my main concern is that while some would argue that BBS could have some effect on generating situational awareness amongst workers, there is little data to support that BBS is effective in reducing serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs), which is where safety professionals should also be focused. In fact, studies show that while non-fatal OSHA recordable injury rates have fallen 51% over the last fifteen years, fatality rates have only fallen half of that rate*. This tells us that there must be other questions that we’re not asking during our accident investigations. HOP attempts to do just that, by positing the idea that you can’t punish and incentivize our way to safety. The blame, shame, and retrain paradigm doesn’t work, and we need a fresh look at how to prevent serious accidents. HOP moves us towards a risk-based systematic approach to safety that focuses on continuous improvement. That brings us to our Panel discussion.

To protect the names of panel members, we’ll just call them Mr. BBS and Mr. New View. The panel discussion started out friendly enough, but got testy by one member in particular fairly quickly – Mr. BBS. Man, for someone who was supposed to be an authority on influencing behaviors through positive reinforcement, this speaker was hubris and even perverse at times. Every time Mr. New View answered a panel question, BBS would show his disapproval by shaking his head. Several times he interrupted other speakers and even spoke out of turn to make his point.

Remember, this was supposed by a discussion to hear strengths and weaknesses of each approach. While New View explained his position in sensible and respectful terms, Mr. BBS was emotionally defensive and dismissive which did nothing to help his argument. In the end, it was clear that New View won the debate, not by defending his position or attacking his opponent, but by offering better and more compelling reasons why we shouldn’t limit our views on safety when new evidence presents itself. How can we learn anything if we first don’t try to understand an opposing view?

Personally, I’m excited about this crossroads in safety and think the New View is certainty interesting and credible. The worker shouldn’t be viewed as the problem to “fix”. What do you think?