Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Behavior-based safety is needed now more than ever


Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

As workplaces restructure to accommodate the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, they need a “refresh” to ensure the basic building blocks of safety are followed and sustained.

Anytime a workforce returns to an environment, it needs retraining. The physical space may look different, the people may be unfamiliar and the headspace of frontline employees themselves may have changed. If organizations don’t pay attention, they could face high turnover and high rates of incidents.

For these reasons, it’s important that we turn to behavior-based safety. Since it was developed in the late 1970s, BBS has been a reliable and powerful tool. Although some think of it merely as a checklist for encouraging the right behaviors, true BBS has evolved to include the fundamental components of supervisory development, leadership training, team building and cross-level collaboration.

Complications resulting from the pandemic have made a strong case for implementing BBS once again. For this to happen means proving wrong some prevailing myths about BBS.

Myth: BBS is outdated.
Fact: BBS is a proven approach. It’s built on William Edwards Deming’s tenets of continuous improvement. It focuses on the frontline employees who are most likely to be injured. It compels employees to, by recognizing that they know the work best, protect themselves first. Overall, BBS provides knowledge and behavioral strategies for controlling exposures while arming employees with the ability to pause work and get help whenever an exposure isn’t adequately controlled. BBS also has the potential to make exposure easier to address with co-workers and supervisors by creating a shared language and shifting the conversation focus from fault-finding to facts. BBS has evolved significantly and incorporates a focus on exposure that accounts for behaviors, hazards and processes.

Myth: The behaviors that make BBS a sustainable intervention are long forgotten.
Fact: Deming believed that by improving quality, employers will increase productivity and market share. His theory of total quality improvement is composed of 14 points, all of which are found in BBS. Specifically:

  • Identify critical safety exposures that are specific and define them to the unique work of the organization. Create messaging regarding what it takes to protect people.
  • Gather data to understand frequency issues, as well as a qualitative perspective on why critical exposures are controlled (safe) or not (exposed).
  • Provide feedback to everyone involved. This includes frontline employees (for controlling their exposures or not), frontline supervisors (for supporting exposure control or not) and managers (for creating a safe workplace).
  • Use the data for continuous improvement. This includes data gathered through the process, as well as insights that remove physical, process-related or cultural barriers to safe work.

Myth: Our focus is now on leadership as the key to achieving safety excellence, and BBS is no longer needed.
Fact: BBS is a vehicle for building bridges between frontline employees, leaders and managers through a common language. It helps everyone meet their shared responsibilities to protect people and create a climate of safety excellence. Early BBS was focused squarely on the frontline employee. When organizations with the best results had strong safety leadership, the focus shifted to developing safety leaders. Today, we know that safety excellence results from a culture that values safety, with safety leaders who are credible and committed, and through engaged frontline employees who recognize and know what to do when confronted with potential exposures.

If you’re looking for ways to engage and retain frontline employees in a way that reduces injuries, improves exposure control and builds employee capability, you need to take another look at adapting BBS to your safety strategy. It may be just what you need in this crazy new world.


This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Rebecca Timmins is senior vice president of DEKRA North America ( She is an organizational safety industry expert who helps clients improve leadership, safety and governance by planning and implementing sustainable data collection processes and feedback mechanisms that target specific areas of risk.



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