Behavior-based safety is one of the most important and controversial approaches to safety improvement in the last 35 years. Some companies swear by it and some think it is time to move on. Labor organizations have never accepted behavior-based safety, especially at the national level. There are good people on both sides and good reasons for their views.
As one of the founders of behavior-based safety who went on to studying safety leadership, and then to serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs), I have a perspective on it that may be different from many. I think it may well be time to move on. Not because there is anything unsound about the core principles of the original conception of behavior-based safety as put forward since the 80’s, but because the world has changed and there are better ways to think about it today than were 35 years ago.
It would have been better if the safety community found a way to improve behavior-based safety in response to changes and criticisms. It could have evolved. But for whatever set of reasons it devolved instead. Behavior-based safety consultants are doing the same things today that they did 35 years ago. But serious “drift” has occurred and at this point the phrase “behavior-based safety” has lost its meaning. Most consultants are still saying that 80-95% of incidents are caused by unsafe behavior, a statement we now know is false, misleading and damaging to organizations who accept it as a premise.
The core problem is that leaders are attracted to the idea that all they have to do is get the ‘behavioral factor’ under control and they can stop worrying about it. This is a very seductive idea, but it is harmful. On the other extreme, there are those who are afraid to say the word “behavior”, for fear of sounding like they blame the worker. Both extremes are partially correct but neither get it right.
A new paradigm is needed that incorporates the latest thinking on incident causation, data analytics, serious injuries and fatalities, technology in the workplace, leadership best practices, and ways to engage front line workers.
Brad MacLean says
Wow, Tom. Your evolution (?) on this might be viewed as heretical by many who have elevated BBS to near religion in safety performance theory! I believe that BBS still has a place but only AFTER organizations have done the work to strike an integrated framework of programs/management systems, organizational elements and cultural cues. More specifically, BBS should only be considered after a foundation of leadership driven cognitive-behavioral safety has been set up across an organization’s leadership community. To do otherwise creates a breeding ground of blame-the-employee approaches, cynicism, and pseudo-safety.
Tom Krause says
Brad, thanks for your comment. The thing is, if you wait till you have the leadership piece right, do you still need BBS? Or is it something different at that point that is less labor intensive? We agree that it is essential not to ‘blame the employee’ but just saying that doesn’t do it. Heretical is ok with me if it represents an improvement. My view is that there are better ways to accomplish what BBS does than the traditional BBS. But it does take some creativity and also some understanding of the core principles.
Julie Holmes says
Thank you Dr. Krause for your new thinking and direction. I agree that the BBS process needs some rejuvenation, adaptation to more diverse clientele, and more inclusive of all levels in the organization. I look forward to the new ideas that will come from this discussion.
Tom Krause says
Julie, thanks for your note. I think we will have some good discussions because this is a really important issue.
Gary Beswick says
It is great to hear that we have individuals within our profession that are beginning a dialogue that will enable us to move forward (i.e. away from thinking that BBS is the Silver Bullet!). We now understand – after how many decades?- that focusing on the bottom of the ‘famous’ incident pyramid or iceberg is not THE answer. We are only beginning to accept that BBS is not THE answer. Perhaps the new paradigm will take into consideration the fact that humans, and the world in which we live and work, is very complex. Hopefully, our new paradigm will take into account a wide variety of variables including societal, governmental, organizational and personal dynamics – not to mention the realm in which most of us still toil – recognition, evaluation and control of physical, chemical and biological hazards. I truly look forward to a robust and enlightening discussion.
Tom Krause says
Gary, Great to hear from you on this. I think we are on the same page. It is a process to acquire and develop deep knowledge. It is easy to misread findings and it takes persistence to avoid the frustration and get it right, knowing that you are going to end up improving it further as new data appears. But in the end it is certainly worth it.
Bob Edson says
Being a true believer in the BBS method from the early days, I never considered it the panacea for a safe culture. My first introduction was the late nineties while attending a BST session in Houston, Texas. As a floor level chemical worker who became a safety professional who moved safety cultures forward for decades, I told my manager upon returning “we can’t succeed with only BBS, but we need this prevention system capability to eliminate more injury causal factors”. When deployed and managed correctly, BBS is merely an “element” of the “numerous capabilities” one must have. The combination of prevention elements cause the sustainable shift of the culture, which moves performance to fewer injuries…because we “manage the business of safety”. As stated earlier BBS, like other prevention methods, is no silver bullet. And simply there is no silver bullet. I presented a keynote presentation at the annual BSN conference on the critical ingredient missing from many failed attempts to utilize BBS to prevent injury. That keynote aligns with something you mention; the leadership behavior that must be “visibly demonstrated” to optimize BBS and thus successfully apply this research-based prevention system element to get results. There are many causes for the ineffective results of BBS, but the science is sound, works when managed correctly, and changes the culture when leadership behavior demonstrates “what they do in BBS”, and that BBS is only part of the overall prevention process. This approach could never succeed on its own; many who have tried it as a silver bullet have failed to achieve the performance they aspire to achieve. The lack of evolution probably has many contributing factors, but not staying true to the research-based principles causes a waste of time and energy, both of which are huge commodities in today’s business world.
Tom Krause says
Bob, thanks for your thoughtful reply. If we keep working this issue we will make some progress. Best regards, Tom
Ian Bell says
Thanks for your thoughts Bob. They are extremely insightful and emphasize the different approaches that work with the different levels of commitment and engagement from many levels within the business, how well the ‘safety guy’ is respected and listened to and (I think) the maturity and willingness of the senior leadership to get truly involved in understanding their organisational attributes to apply a shortlist of methods to move safety performance in the right direction.
I suspect that BBS doe work extremely well within an organisation that is well connected and has very active leadership and, probably not so well, in others that want the results delivered by others.
I have just spent a week in India training in risk management and Permitting and saw phenomenal levels of engagement, participation and leadership from some companies that I just don’t see in Australian companies.
Dominic Cooper says
I am in complete agreement with your sentiments, and (as you probably know) have spent many years researching and developing the tools needed to bring everything into alignment. Certainly Leadership safety-related behaviors can be ( and should be ) targeted in the same way as traditional BBS for employees; We know that a servant safety leadership approach has double the impact on safety performance than transformational/transactional safety leadership; We know that approx. 10-30% of all safety behavior observations highlight potential SIFs; We know that targeting the underlying contributors (e.g Job planning, etc) and fixing them can eliminate numerous unsafe / at-risk behaviors at a stroke. We know we need to collate the data and analyze it in a meaningful way, so that relevant, high-quality feedback can be given. We know we need to engage employees in safety in ways that are beyond, but complementary to BBS. I call this new paradigm ‘a Safety partnership’ that embraces all the above in an integrated whole.
Trevor Strother says
Coming from an Organisational Development background into the safety area 15 years ago, I have always had a difficulty with the narrowness of how behaviour is defined as a result of BBS approach certainly in oil and gas exploration where much of my work has been. Behaviour exhibited by personnel anywhere in a business can influence safety. However when I talk with businesses about behaviour, those with BBS experience immediately revert back to the BBS Stop type programs. Whilst BBS has certainly helped in our pursuit of safer workplaces, it has also hindered the discussion at more senior levels as well. Unfortunately, like the safety pyramid, when something becomes entrenched it is incredibly difficult to change.
Rick Strycker says
I can’t overstate how impressed I am with the journey you’ve been on over the past couple of years, as reflected in your post above. It’s rare for anyone to reflect and rethink one’s beliefs and assumptions, for even more so when you’re a thought leader in your field. Thanks for being public about your learning process. For me, “behavior” is a critical facet of safety performance, but the behavior-based approach became too limiting, for all the reasons you say above. Sometimes it’s just too much work to rehabilitate an idea; and thus better to find a new model. Behavior is certainly an element of a complex system and systems “behave,” but not always in the way BBS predicted. For me, the new model must be more humanizing and take account of the real complexity of human experience, including the interior, subjective and non-rational facets.
Bhupendra Singh Baliyan says
Read your article very insightful.
Organisation which are able to find the value in BBS really make it go. There are many contributing factor which holds ground for successful BBS program. In my view Top management Safety leadership plays vital role. however it has to be continual and not one time off. It really takes time to change the way persons at works think about himself safety and others as well. My experience in BBS is that always top and bottom layer of organisation hierarchy are very much keen in making changes. Resistance to acceptance and changes are more somewhere in middle management which are more production focused and give minimal attention and time to BBS. During my HSE profession, I notice that direct human intervention and dialogue and showing a caring and sharing attitude make a significant changes in attitude.
Safety professional and BBS Guru need to understand that :one size not fit all”. BBS need to be tailored after deep understanding of the organisation exiting culture and before this “The VALUE” of persons who are part of this BBS system.
Simon Cockerell says
I believe that if a balance is achieved between systems and BBS then they work hand in hand and reinforce each other. Strong systems direct good behaviours and good behaviours lead to improved systems. Its an over focus on one aspect against the other that is detrimental.
Geof Fountain says
Agree that an integrated balance between systems and BBS is workable. David Marx’s Just Culture addresses both system and individual behavior. https://www.outcome-eng.com/about-outcome-engenuity/
Would need to integrate the term “at-risk behavior” as it has different meanings. Marx describes three types of behavior: unintentional human error, intentional “at-risk behavior” (where they did not see the risk or believed the risk to be acceptable), and intentional reckless behavior (where they chose to place themselves and/or other in significant, unjustifiable harms way). The three behaviors have different management responses: console the error (and improve the system to reduce or catch and correct future similar errors), coach the first time at-risk, and discipline the reckless or recurring at-risk behavior. Like error, at-risk behavior can also be system-induced, reflecting a broader organizational drift over time. Would be interested in hearing from others on this possible integration of the two.