Behavior Based Safety – Does It Work?

Behavioural Safety

Behavior Based Safety – You’re probably unknowingly using it.

Most business owners are probably not familiar with the term Behaviour Based Safety. However, it’s likely they’re unknowingly using it, or at least part of it.

What is “Behavior Based Safety”?

Behaviour Based Safety is an approach to health and safety management that focuses on workers’ behaviour. The belief is that worker behaviour is the cause of most work-related injuries and illnesses. Many advocates of behaviour based safety programs believe that unsafe worker behaviour is the cause of 80 – 96% of workplace injuries.
Programs identify workers who are behaving “unsafely”. Coaxing, cajoling and/or threatening follows in an attempt to “adjust” behaviour or be sacked.

Behaviour Based Safety Programs Are Usually Management Inspired

Behaviour Based Safety Programs usually require managers, supervisors or even hand-picked workers to carry out observations.  They “observe”  the behaviour of workers to spot unsafe behaviours.
The results are then analysed and reported. Accordingly, ‘safe’ behaviour programs or other “remedies” are initiated against the perpetrators.

The development of “behaviour programs” may not be big in most business’s health & safety arsenal. However, there’s a strong tendency for management or clerical staff to develop safe operating procedures or risk assessments. Workers are then “forced” to follow them even if they a ridiculously irrelevant.

A “Which Worker Is To Blame” Audit

Behavioural based safety in many cases is an auditing program carried out on the workforce. The purpose is to find “breaches” in behaviour. It assumes a “blame the worker” attitude about safety failure.
This approach also assumes that workers know what behaviours they should be doing and need to be reminded to do them. This approach is often not the case.

Wrong in methodology, Right In Concept

The reality of behavioural based safety is that it is dead wrong in the method it employs while being right in its overall concept.

Imagine this scenario;
You have some very experienced workers employed.
They are experts at their job even though some of the tasks they carry out may be unsafe.
An owner or manager is desperate to implement safe procedures to cover the business’s compliance with safety laws. However, he has never actually carried out the tasks himself.
He delegates the writing of the safe operating procedures to an office assistant. She researches the tasks on the internet (since she also has no idea of the functions first hand).
She finds a generic template and uses that as the new standard of how to carry out the tasks.
Now a type of witch hunt follows. Supervisors, or other workers, are delegated to spy on the ones carrying out those tasks. They need to ensure they’re “behaving” correctly.

What would be the logical outcome of this scenario?

Experienced Workers Treat Irrelevant Systems With Contempt

The experienced staff scoff at the whole attempt. They either carry out the task as they always have OR resign as the jobs become impossible to perform.
The workers who do not resign slide deep into a “them and us” culture. Avoiding the observers on their witch hunt becomes a game.
Respect for the company and its management slips very low.
You have either;

  • lost valuable assets in the form of experienced workers
  • or have created a rebellious workforce that holds your health and safety efforts in contempt.

Who wins in this scenario? Nobody!

The Remedy

What do we need from a health and safety management system?

An effective system is one that provides two things;

  1. a safer working environment for workers
  2. protects the business from prosecution due to inadequate systems.

This system cannot be achieved by the type of Behavioural Based Safety as outlined above.

Critical Worker Buy-In

A health and safety management system that does not have your worker’s “buy in” is no system at all.
It’ll only ever be as strong as the weakest link. That weak link is usually the insincerity of a workforce without “buy-in”.

Some points in favour of behaviour based safety are that it;

  • Focuses on the human side of safety
  • Defines safe and unsafe behaviours
  • Encourages safe behaviour and discourages unsafe or destructive behaviours
  • Involves workers in safety
  • Requires management to put its money where its mouth is; and
  • Engenders commitment and passion, especially in the early phases.

Dealing With Symptoms Not Causes

However, this doesn’t deal with the root causes of safety failures; it deals with the symptoms.
The behaviour of workers is a long way from the only root cause of safety failures.

Contributing factors also include;

  • poor maintenance
  • inadequate tooling
  • environment issues
  • engineering
  • processes
  • chain reactions from minor or major parts failures
  • weather conditions
  • communication
  • training failures

These are just some of the root causes of accidents.
In some cases, workers carry out “unsafe” behaviours because there is a shortage of;

  • resources
  • equipment or some other necessary tool
  • a system or process required to perform work safely.

When business owners and managers, address these, workers are more likely to want to adopt safe behaviours.

A Dangerous Approach To Health and Safety

One big failure in many health and safety systems is the cookie-cutter/ generic approach, or what works in one business will work in all. This approach is dangerous.

Each business is a unique set of operating tasks, even within similar industries.
Owners and managers should actively,= and vocally support safe production. Putting money and resources behind that support is less likely to get pushback from employees regarding safe behaviour.

Also, the money allocated is seldom anywhere near as much as court action costs;
It’s wise to always compare safety costs with;

  • potential fines
  • legal fees
  • increased insurance premiums
  • stress that results from court action.

Safety Is A Cultural Problem

Safety isn’t primarily a technical problem or a behavioural problem. It’s a cultural problem. If the culture’s wrong, nothing else works.

The quickest way to ensure safety culture failure is to try to “force” safe behaviour on workers. You can’t mandate people to monitor themselves. You can invite them to do it but trying to force them creates pushback.
It’s just plain human nature.

Changing culture is the most critical part of health and safety. Change the way workers think about safety. Without worker “buy in” business owners are just “flogging a dead horse”.

Workers Need To See The Value Of Change.

Workers need to believe in the value of change. They also have to know how to change.
They have to practice because it doesn’t happen from one action.
Reinforce new actions through acknowledgement, celebration and external monitoring.

The key to real, positive behaviour based safety is to create a different environment.  Safety management needs to be something that’s being done with me or by me rather than to me or for me.

People get better because they change their attitudes, not because there is pressure placed on them from an outside source. Especially when that external source demonstrates little knowledge about the processes they’re trying to change.

The Challenge Is To Inspire

The challenge of getting health and safety right is to inspire people to be self-accountable.
Like everything else in business, this starts with the owner or manager then filters through supervisors to workers.

The first step is always the acknowledgement of workers value. After the entrepreneurial, marketing and production talents of the business owner, workers are the most valuable resource.

The second step is the realisation that those workers are individuals with dominant motivational tendencies and strong belief patterns. In particular, they are mostly outside of the ability of an owner or manager to manipulate. Even inducing fear of repercussion doesn’t change these core beliefs.

The third step is to understand that experienced workers know their job or, they at least understand the processes and tasks they carry out daily. Consequently, they are the most vital source of information. The sort that’s needed to create the procedures and assessments that make up a health and safety management system.

Use these three steps in regular and ongoing consultation. Don’t treat them as a token gesture, but as a real and effective way of getting buy-in.
Make each part of the system is acceptable to the people who it affects most. They will respect the business, the owners and the system because it will be theirs.

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