Consultant changes tune on behavior-based safety

Thirty years ago, Tom Krause was a champion for behavior-based safety, believing corporate “top-down” safety programs were ineffective and compromised safety systems. The best way to make significant improvements, he said, was to empower hourly-level workers to confront safety issues. Krause even wrote the book “The Behavior-Based Safety Process.”

But that was then. Today, Krause, a licensed psychologist and chairman of Ojai, CA-based consulting firm Behavioral Science Technology Inc., would rather not utter the term “BBS.”

A key change in Krause’s thinking was triggered by organized labor’s opposition to BBS, joined with his gradual realization that safety success demands leadership and culture. Organized labor believes BBS makes workers – not employers – responsible for safety and ignores the direct mitigation of hazards.

“When we first started to do this work in 1979, we were pretty naive about those kinds of issues, and we just went at it with the word ‘behavior’ in full force without realizing that it was a word that just riled and scared and upset people at the hourly level. The reason that it was upsetting to them was justified,” Krause said. “The reason they have a valid concern is that an organization that looks at safety as a behavioral issue will fail to address the system’s issues that need to be addressed in order to really make a serious improvement in safety performance and in the culture.”

Krause said he and other BBS proponents used to claim that 85 to 90 percent of occupational injuries were caused by workers’ at-risk behaviors. He now says organizations that still hold such a view “tip off that they don’t get it.”

“I really have changed my view of this whole thing over the years from experience. You want to take into account the worker in the equation, of course, but you don’t want to do anything that implies ‘blame the worker,’” Krause said.

Instead, leadership and culture must drive safety improvements by establishing a properly functioning “interface” between the worker, safety system and technologies, equipment, facilities, and other workers, Krause said. His 2005 book, “Leading with Safety,” is a culmination of his research and experience that redefines his view of organizational safety.

As an example, Krause said that if workers do not wear personal protective equipment or tie off at heights, it shows a flaw in the organization’s safety system and culture. “When you look at why someone doesn’t wear protective equipment or why they don’t tie off, what you are going to find is that there are very strong system and culture issues. It means there is something in the system that isn’t working right,” he said. “If you’ve got 20 percent of your people who are not tying off, and you tolerate that, and one of them falls and gets hurt and you start disciplining people, what kind of system is that?”

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)