October 6, 2019

The BBS Dilemma Part 4

What’s wrong with BBS… and is it possible to fix it?

This is the fourth in a series of four segments about the shortcomings of Behavior Based Safety (BBS), and decision options for leaders to consider from various starting points. The goal of this series is to inform leaders of optimal strategies for getting the most out of whatever “behavior based or human performance” safety improvement approach is being considered. 

Part 1 is an overview addressing how to think about BBS and its relationship to Human and Organizational Performance (HOP). Part 2 is about how BBS processes get killed, and when they should be abandoned. Part 3 is about the crucial role of leadership if BBS or any improvement strategy is to work well. Lastly, Part 4 is about how leadership can design a Serious and Fatal Injuries (SIF) initiative to revitalize an existing BBS initiative.   

Part 4


Most organizations know about the SIF findings of the last eight years or so and many have implemented SIF programs. Variation across organizations, especially at the site level, is very high. What we see most often is something like this:

“We realized that we needed to put specific effort into the prevention of SIF events. The strategies we had in place were not sufficient to address the underlying causes of SIF events. We established Life Saving Rules and identified the types of activities most likely to be associated with SIFs. We trained our supervisors, and to some extent our leaders, on the kinds of situations and activities of most concern. We looked at new SIF metrics, but the process got a little bogged down and we haven’t yet nailed down SIF metrics that are widely visible and taken seriously by our leadership.  The concept of SIF precursors is appealing to us, but we don’t have a systematic process for identifying and addressing them. We realize we need to get there. At the total company or business unit level we continued to have SIF events, which are a source of frustration to our leaders, especially senior leaders, who don’t understand why they are still occurring, even after we “did SIF training”. We still have a BBS process in place, and we’ve told our observers to look for SIF precursors. But there is confusion about what an SIF precursor is, and our observations don’t yield them consistently.  Our senior leaders know to ask about SIF work when they do site visits. Our recordable rate is lower than it has ever been, but an experienced eye taking a close look at how we are doing the work shows readily visible SIF precursors unaddressed. We’ve “done HOP” and it helped, but our teams aren’t producing SIF precursor solutions. We still have SIF precursors out there, many of them. We have a few outstanding leaders who get it, and they are concerned about getting that 3 a.m. call.” 

There is an opportunity here to do three good things at once: re-invigorate the BBS process (consider a different name that captures the spirit of the process), utilize HOP principles, and make the SIF process effective at identifying and addressing precursors. This is absolutely do-able, but it takes some innovation and an aligned vision from leadership. That vision has to extend up from the site manager to the CEO (or head of the business unit if it is large) and down to the front-line supervisor. And it needs to engage front-line employees in the process.

A major obstacle may well be getting leadership to reconcile what they learned with BBS with what they learned from HOP, and see how the concepts can be integrated in the service of SIF prevention. The difficulty is more perceived than real, but it has to be addressed none-the-less. An existing BBS effort uses scarce resources, but often inefficiently, similarly with HOP initiatives. But the principles are easily integrated. Most leaders are less concerned with the branding and more concerned with finding an effective way to engage front-line employees in the process of identifying SIF precursors.

It may be useful to give up the name “BBS”. An innovative approach might be better named something else. The important thing isn’t the name, it is the extent to which the strategy has the capacity to reach out into the workplace and identify and address SIF precursors. HOP provides a way of thinking about it that is more explicit about underlying system causes and less likely to assign blame to the employee. All of this needs new insights and new thinking from leadership. 

Leaders have to see themselves in the safety systems and act differently if they want a different outcome. This is a highly significant opportunity to draw leaders into an ongoing role in maintaining and continuously improving safety systems. No one single thing could be more important to the task of eliminating SIF events.