The problem with a complex issue is that you have to think about it a little. It’s easy to say “Here are five reasons behavior-based safety is terrific” or “Here are five reasons why it is terrible.” But neither of these tell the whole story. The truth is that behavior-based safety (BBS) is a mixed bag. Understanding what is in the bag is crucial to using the method successfully, not using it all, or most importantly, guiding the natural evolution of BBS to its next form.
Don’t respond to this thinking, “BBS used to be the greatest and now it is being criticized.” Thinking this just means you don’t understand an important issue. Rather, ask yourself this, “How should my organization view BBS in order to get the most benefit for safety improvement?” That’s what it comes down to.
The reality is that the best methods develop over time. Sometimes they evolve, as they should. Sometimes they become extinct, when they resist change for too long. Our job as safety leaders is to guide that development, to call out when changes are needed and to ring the bell if it gets to the point that it should be blown up and started over.
If your organization’s position on BBS is the same now that it was 5 or 10 or 20 years ago you are out of date. New findings across this period have changed the game. This is a good thing: not a source of frustration. Knowledge proceeds that way. Think about it as an opportunity to be more effective at saving lives.
The challenge you have as a safety leader is to understand the issue as well as you can and then figure out what it means for how your organization approaches safety.
As one of the founders of BBS starting in 1979, and the founder of BST (a consulting company that did several thousand comprehensive BBS projects, acquired by Dekra in 2012), I have a perspective on the issue that may be somewhat unique. My colleagues and I established the effectiveness of BBS at reducing recordable rates. We also found that leadership and culture were critical variables and developed models to assess and improve them. We led a major study on serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). All this work is context for understanding how to think about the evolution of BBS.
From my perspective, BBS has been rightly criticized, and also improperly maligned; it has failed to evolve quickly enough, and the research that established it as effective in the first place has been largely abandoned. BBS has become over-commercialized, made into a commodity, over-sold and over-priced, and the original principles that it was built on have too often been forgotten. It is clear that unless major changes are made, BBS will gradually decline and eventually die.
Here is one example of many:
Over the last ten years or so, excellent work has been done to gain a new understanding of serious injuries and fatalities. An aggregate analysis of data from seven large global organizations found that about 20% of recordable injuries have the potential to be serious¹. This study showed that the old idea that reducing small injuries would necessarily also reduce SIFs proportionally is false.
What does this mean for BBS?
A) It means that unless adjustments are made to the core method, it is most likely that BBS initiatives will reduce smaller injuries but not serious and fatal ones. That is an unacceptable outcome to anyone who is serious about safety. You can determine whether or not this is happening in your organization by studying your own data.
Addressing this issue means thinking differently about how BBS is done, from start to finish. How behaviors are identified, how observation and feedback processes are structured, and most importantly, how safety improvement action plans are approached. It means re-inventing a better method that incorporates the benefits of BBS and drops the shortcomings. It also means rethinking how resources are allocated to BBS efforts, and how new knowledge and technology are integrated.
B) Most effective BBS initiatives begin with an assessment of the organization’s leadership and culture². This is important because unless we understand these factors, we risk allocating the resources for the initiative incorrectly, which leads to failure.
The big issue here is that good assessment tools for leadership and culture are validated against recordable incident rates (some assessment tools are not validated at all, which compromises them almost entirely). Now what does that mean to the effectiveness of BBS at reducing SIFs? It means that you may well be focusing on the wrong leadership variables and the wrong culture variables. This is also a big deal to people who are serious about reducing SIFs.
The remedy is to study the leadership and culture variables we know are generally associated with safety, but study them against SIF exposure rather than recordable injuries. This can be done within a given organization or by a group of organizations.
This short piece is to convince you that your organization needs to re-consider how BBS is done. And the larger safety community needs to consider what the next step is in the evolution of improvement tools for organizational safety.
Learn more about our approach to Safety Behavior
 See the presentation titled, “New Perspectives in Fatality and Serious Injury Prevention” sponsored by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in cooperation with the Alcoa Foundation, DuPont Sustainable Solutions, Edison Mission Group, and United States Steel on October 29, 2012, available at http://www.iup.edu/safetysciences/events/fatality-forum/
 Krause, T. (2005) Leading with Safety. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Wayne Maksylewich says
Excellent summary. I have worked with BBS over many years and have found safety management stuck – every problem is a nail for the BBS hammer. I like what Exxon has done and led the development and implementation of similar HSSE systems for HJ Heinz in Asia Pacific. Behavior was what we expected first of our leadership and observations were only a small part of our metrics.