Behavior-based safety: A study of pros and cons

Approach divides worker safety advocates

By Marvin V. Greene, associate editor

  • Built into the BBS approach are initiatives that include having line workers observe the behavior of fellow workers, logging near-miss incidents and devising modest recognition programs.
  • Companies, risk managers and consultants applaud BBS as one component of a holistic approach for driving occupational safety and health improvements.
  • Labor unions believe BBS fuels underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses because it often is tied to incentive programs and fails to address the root causes – actual hazards.
  • Effective programs provide a mechanism to pinpoint unsafe behaviors, proponents say.

When discussing effective measures for keeping workers safe, a deep divide exists regarding one approach: behavior-based safety.

BBS targets changes in worker behavior as a means of preventing occupational injuries and illnesses. “Most likely, you’re either for it or against it,” said Oliver Wirth, a research psychologist with NIOSH’s Health Effects Laboratory Division in Morgantown, WV.

Many contend that worker behavior correlates directly with an immediate cause of accidents and injuries. Built into the BBS approach are initiatives that include having line workers observe the behavior of fellow workers, logging near-miss incidents, and securing feedback and devising recognition programs intended to spot unsafe behaviors and mitigate them.

Wirth said BBS remains a much-debated topic in safety and health circles. Although studies have been conducted by behavioral researchers, more needs to be known about how to structure and pursue programs, and whether BBS can be an effective long-term safety control, he said.

“It is generally not listed as a safety control in the hierarchy of safety controls. Some people talk about it as an administrative control because it does involve instituting some administrative practices. But even then, it is not clear,” Wirth said.

The controversy

Organized labor typically opposes BBS, saying it allows employers to place the responsibility for safety on workers – a potential violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

“It is a sophisticated way of saying workers are really the most to blame for injuries out there,” said Jackie Nowell, director of occupational safety and health for the United Food and Com­mercial Work­ers Inter­national Union in Wash­ington. “In our industries, there are abundant hazards. We believe that needs to be the focus of any safety program – that you go looking for the hazard, not the careless act. Once you’ve cleaned up all the hazards, fine – go find the careless acts.”

However, many companies, risk managers and consultants applaud BBS as one component of a holistic approach for driving occupational safety and health improvements. “Our focus has always been on recognizing safe behaviors. That’s the first thing we do after we let someone know we are going to be conducting an observation,” said William Linneweh, environmental, health and safety manager at Woodridge, IL-based Hen­drickson International, a supplier of truck, tractor and trailer air ride suspension systems for the heavy-duty transportation industry.

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“You definitely reinforce the positive behaviors they are doing, whether they are using proper lockout/tagout procedures or good ergonomic principles, to help reinforce safe practices,” Linneweh said. Hendrickson instituted a formalized BBS program in 2006. Presently, about 1,100 of the company’s workers – half of the total workforce – are operating under BBS.

Wirth and fellow NIOSH researcher Sigurdur Oli Sigurdsson co-authored a study, published in the January 2009 issue of the National Safety Council’s Journal of Safety Research, that recommended the use of BBS as part of a comprehensive approach to addressing psychological, social, organizational and engineering factors in the workplace.

However, BBS is not meant to be a cure-all for what may be troubling a workplace, Wirth said. “It is just one type of control that focuses on behavior,” he said. “It is not to be a replacement or alternatives to the others. It is just considered to be one of the tools that may be used in a comprehensive program. Oftentimes, it is used in conjunction with other controls.”

Linneweh said his company went to great lengths to orient employees on the benefits of BBS before rolling it out as part of a comprehensive strategy called “Safety Excellence.” The rollout included presenting the concept to a steering committee of company safety and human resources managers, worker representatives and upper management; coordinating with other companies who operate similar programs; and conducting training for workers at its plants.

Tracking behaviors

Hendrickson tracks behaviors through a database and encourages employee participation through techniques related to sports, such as “safety soccer” and “safety baseball,” Linneweh said. Organizations pursuing BBS programs typically gauge program success by using a safe behaviors rate, which is determined from logging observations.

Although Linneweh said the program has been well-received among plant personnel, the occasional response from workers being observed by other workers is: “He doesn’t know my job, so how does he know what to look for?” Therefore, articulating the benefits of BBS to workers is important, he said. “People are guarded, and they are uncomfortable with someone else watching what they are doing,” Linneweh said. “We’ve seen resistance to that in some of the unionized facilities because they believe it is going to be negative in nature. You really have to be able to connect with that leader in the union or safety committee so they can see the benefits.”

A white paper posted on the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Website takes a hard view on the notion of workers observing one another in the workplace, saying such initiatives often require employees to critique one another’s work practices and thus “generate fear and conflict amongst members.” The Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers of America has been surveying its members to learn the extent and effect of BBS programs – particularly in a stifling economy in which corporations are pushing for more accountability for workplace incidents.

Labor unions believe BBS fuels underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses because it often is tied to incentive programs and fails to address root causes – actual hazards. A June 2008 report from the majority staff of the House Education and Labor Committee charged that 69 percent of injuries and illnesses that occur in U.S. workplaces reported by employers may escape counting in annual federal surveys.

“It is an incredible disincentive, coming forward with near misses and coming forward with hazards in your area. It sends the message that you had better not get injured because [the employer] will go out and look for the kinds of things that are careless and, if you get an injury, we’re going to blame you for it,” Nowell said.

Positive recognition, feedback

Positive recognition and feedback are common components of BBS programs, but incentives or social rewards such as restaurant gift certificates or game tickets for reporting unsafe behaviors should not be the focus of recognition programs, said Jessie F. Godbey, program coordinator and assistant professor for occupational safety and health in the Department of Technology and Engi­neering at Jacksonville State University in Florida.

“Most workers probably are not going to not report an injury for a coffee cup, but if the prize is larger, then there is that temptation. Studies show that good behavior-based safety efforts don’t need those tangible rewards, but the linchpin is really the feedback and the positive recognition that they get from that,” Godbey said.

Michael P. McSherry, environmental, safety and quality manager for the continental United States for Burlingame, CA-based ECC, a global company that provides environmental remediation and construction services to U.S. military installations, said his company avoids use of the term “incentives.”

“We shy away from having it based on the lack of injuries. We don’t want to discourage reporting. We usually try to base our recognition programs on positive actions people have to take. If you don’t have people bringing up the issues, then you can’t know what they are and you can’t do anything about them. You definitely want to steer away from a program that would encourage lack of reporting,” McSherry said.

Godbey said an effective BBS effort is part of management’s duty. “Management shouldn’t relinquish control of behavior-based safety to employees. They should still be involved and equally responsible, just as they are for the OSHA regulations,” he said.

Pinpointing unsafe behaviors

Godbey said effective BBS programs will provide a mechanism to zero-in on specific unsafe behaviors. For instance, if a plant has never had a recordable eye injury, it would not make sense to focus on measuring behavior for wearing safety glasses, Godbey said.

“If you do a good job up-front pinpointing the behaviors that actually contribute to your injuries and improve those, then you will get good results in your incident rates. You want to identify the problem behaviors, but the flip side of that is you want to identify the correct behaviors that the employee should do. A mistake … is that we tell people what not to do, but we don’t tell them what we want them to do instead,” Godbey said.

Wirth said those advocating for BBS approaches will need to resolve gaps that exist in the data that can show effectiveness, such as properly identifying behaviors, scrutinizing various approaches to the practice and determining long-term successes. Bec­ause most BBS practitioners are consultants or work in risk management or insurance concerns, most of what they have learned about the practice over the years fails to make it into research projects.

“Everyone kind of does it their own way,” Wirth said. “There really isn’t any data to suggest what the most critical components are. We need data to determine how effective processes are.”

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