Industryweek 26807 Safety Titanic 2

Safety and Performance Excellence: Criticizing BBS

Dec. 20, 2017
Some critics of behavior-based safety remind me of the designer of the Titanic. They will go down with the ship before they make any design modifications.

The earliest versions of behavioral safety processes still are around today with too few changes. Some processes that have changed missed a few critical issues in their design. There remain popular misconceptions and limited views of what behavior-based safety (BBS) is and is not. Regardless of the current state of BBS, a discussion is needed on what BBS should and should not be.

It is not a complete safety process. When a site starts BBS, they should not stop what they already are doing in safety. BBS should be used to fill the gap between traditional safety and safety excellence. It is not a tool to address process safety and high-probability risks, although some try to use it that way. The critics who cite examples of fatalities at BBS sites fail to realize it was traditional safety, not BBS, that failed.

BBS should be used to address the low-probability risks that tend to get missed in rules and procedures, but continue to cause accidents despite traditional safety’s best efforts. Attempting to address traditional safety issues with BBS not only is unrealistic, it also puts observers in potential conflicts of interest. If BBS is a coaching tool designed to strengthen safety culture, but observers also are charged with enforcing the rules that might lead to punishment, they may be viewed as safety cops rather than as friendly co-workers trying to build a safer culture.

It is not right for every site. Like almost any safety initiative, BBS only is useful during certain periods of progression toward safety excellence. Some sites are not yet ready and some already have progressed beyond the point at which BBS could help them move to the next level.

Some sites have accidents resulting largely from rule and procedural violations and others have accidents mostly caused by conditional or design issues. These sites likely will not benefit from BBS. A careful assessment should be performed to determine if remaining accidents can be behaviorally prevented and if site safety culture is ready to support and benefit from such an initiative.

It should not be a blame-the-worker process. Many confuse behaviorally-preventable accidents with behaviorally-caused accidents. Safety processes too often have focused on root cause rather than elegant solutions for prevention. The fact a worker can take a precaution to prevent an accident automatically does not infer that had the worker not taken the precaution, he or she would have caused an accident. Defensive driving long has been accepted as a way for the innocent to protect themselves from the less careful. This thinking has not transferred to other safety issues with the same level of acceptance.

It should not ignore conditional or cultural influences on behavior. Early BBS processes were based on the ABC Analysis model of reinforcement. The model is okay, but application of it was limited to a worker giving feedback to another worker and assuming verbal feedback alone was enough to change workplace behaviors.

Read the full article on EHS Today. 

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