Overcoming the Most Common Objections to Behavior-Based Safety

September 23, 2019 Emma Swan

Those of us who are strong believers in Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) understand the effectiveness and value this methodology can bring to a safety program. Nevertheless, there are many environmental, health, and safety professionals out there who disagree and believe BBS straight-up doesn't work for one reason or another. 

In talking with EHS pros in the non-believer camp, we've noticed there are 4 common objections to Behavior-Based Safety programs that come up time and time again. In this post, we're going to take a closer look at these objections, bust some BBS myths, and provide some clarity - regardless of which side of the fence you're on. 

Behavior-Based Safety Defined

Let's start by defining what Behavior-Based Safety actually means. Most of the controversy around BBS is the direct result of a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the correct definition and root of BBS.

BBS should always be based on the science of behavior, meaning it focuses on what people do. BBS is a process that creates an ongoing partnership between management and employees to continually focus people’s attention on actions and daily safety behaviors. BBS focuses on what tasks people do, analyzes how they perform the task, and then applies a research-supported intervention strategy to improve the process.

For Behavior-Based Safety programs to be successful, they must include all employees – starting from the CEO down to front-line workers. It really comes down to looking at an organization’s systems and processes and understanding how they are influencing employees' behaviours and actions - and then working to make adjustments as necessary. 

Examples of Behavior-Based Safety Methods

  • Peer to peer observation
  • Peer to supervisor observation (and vice versa)
  • A targeted list of behaviors for each department/function
  • Key designated observers
  • The entire team as observers

At the heart of BBS is the use of positive consequences and reinforcement. These are the most effective and efficient factors to promote change in behavior. If we use a lot of positive reinforcement by placing a heavy focus on catching people doing things the correct way, then we are creating more engagement and better conversations about safety. On the contrary, if we focus on only talking to employees and calling them out when they are doing something the wrong way, this creates a culture of resentment towards safety.

Debunking 4 Common Behavior-Based Safety Objections

Now that we have a good understanding of how BBS is defined and put into practice, let’s look at the four most commonly cited objections to Behavior-Based Safety programs: 

1. Behavior-Based Safety Blames the Worker

This is perhaps one of the most common myths around BBS, and it stems from this stat: 80% of incidents are the result of unsafe acts. This is quite misleading as it seems to suggest that incidents have nothing to do with hazards, and instead,  only looks at behavior - which in turn, faults the worker. This is a narrow definition of behavior as it focuses on a worker's ability to "behave". 

In reality, BBS eliminates worker blame because it helps to understand the root causes of behavior. By using BBS properly, we look at the systems workers are operating in. If an employee is working in a bad system that is perhaps encouraging them to do at-risk behaviors, this isn’t at all about the worker – it is about the process/system. So, this objection is false, BBS does the complete opposite.

2. Behavior-Based Safety results in underreporting because it includes incentives for not having incidents 

This one makes BBS supporters laugh. We know that the science behind BBS proves that if you put incentives in place for not having any accidents reported, you will actually get people hiding incidents in order to receive reward. This results in a huge amount of under-reporting, so BBS programs would never incentivize people for any lack of incidents.

Instead, BBS programs help shine light and celebrate incident reporting to encourage employees to be actively apart of this risk mitigation process.

3. BBS shifts company focus and resources away from hazards and focuses exclusively on employee behavior 

If this has happened in your organization, you are not doing Behavior-Based Safety properly. BBS is not a replacement for anything else an organization is doing, including hazard remediation. When we encourage employees to take charge and be apart of hazard reporting, the more hazards get addressed because they are actually talking about it and encouraged to do so.

An effective BBS system encourages and supports hazard recognition and remediation. Any program focusing solely on employee behavior instead of systems and processes is simply not BBS.

4. Employees are reluctant to do observations and don't see the value

Too many Behavior-Based Safety systems involve long observations that take people away from their day-to-day work. If your observation process requires someone to leave their work for a significant period of time, they won’t want to be apart of the process and you’re going to struggle with engagement. This will result in front-line workers not wanting to do observations, which results in less data and feedback. What happens then? People think your BBS program isn’t working – which it isn’t!

Instead, focus on a few, relevant behaviors at a time and do more frequent, shorter observations. The more observations you receive, the more feedback you’re able to gather which means you can make meaningful behavioral changes faster. Ensure workers are seeing the impact of their efforts by sharing the improvements regularly – this is crucial for buy-in and employee engagement. 

Wrapping Up 

We hope to have leveled the playing field for Behavior-Based Safety – as it sometimes gets a bad rap.  When we step back, these four common objections are truly a result of a larger misunderstanding of what BBS actually means.

Focus on identifying critical behaviors for workers and management: these behaviors should have the biggest impact and hone in on the data associated with them. Ensure frequent observations for all parties, including self-observation. Then you can start using science to do collaborative problem-solving around behavioral changes and reinforce and encourage positive behaviors and incident reporting.

Most importantly, ensure your process has an intended impact and share these results with the team – collaboration and communication are key to the success of a behavior-based safety program. 

Learn More about Behavior-Based Safety

For more information on how you can create an effective and sustainable BBS program watch our webinar, Behavior-Based Safety: The Controversy Continues

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