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What is behavioral based safety (BBS)?

Is it just another safety gimmick or buzz word or is it an opportunity to identify and manage risk?

With many of my clients BBS appears to have a negative connotation associated with it. When an organization intentionally or unintentionally uses employee behavior as a means for discipline then BBS may certainly be viewed as a negative program. So how can BBS be effective without being viewed as just another gimmick in the eyes of the employee?

We must understand that all of us have behavior in which some of it can be predictable. When an organization understands the workforce behavior and can predict it, then it can begin to reduce employee risk. First, let’s remind ourselves of some basic fundamental business concepts:

  • Most manufacturing businesses require equipment and labor
  • Quality Control (QC) systems are needed to standardize and produce quality product thus reducing returns, rejects or scrap.
  • Preventive Maintenance (PM) is required to help keep manufacturing equipment operating, thus reducing major downtime.

What are the QC and PM for the labor force? Company Health and Safety programs/systems are the PM and QC for the labor force.

Facility Health and Safety programs have to go beyond just being compliance based or focused. OSHA compliance does not necessarily reduce risk for your organization. In order to reduce employee risk, produce a safe product, and maintain profitability, one must see the value in understanding human behavior. There are exceptions to these, but my experience has shown these to be mostly true for the organizations I work with.

Time is always a concept in everything we do. Let me ask you; how often do you stop a vehicle on a 300 mile trip? If you only stop to get gas or go to the restroom, then you understand the time concept. How quick can we get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’?

We are task oriented (focus on one task at a time). We don’t necessarily look at the goal as it relates to the overall picture. Look at the following as an example: If I asked an employee to take 20 containers to the other end of the production floor during their work shift most employees would move all 20 in successive trips. Now they may make 50 trips across the production floor in the course of normal work shift naturally as part of their job responsibilities. The employee could take a container with them each trip instead of making multiple in successive trips until the task is completed (time concept). The behavioral thought process is: how quickly can the employee complete one task before moving to the next. The risk here is when we find employees lifting or carrying more than one container at a time (against company policy) so they can complete the task and move onto their normal work schedule versus carrying one container every time they cross the floor normally. It can be incorporated into their normal work schedule (would add no additional time since they were headed that way normally) instead they view it as a separate task and therefore feel rush to complete it in order to get back to their normal work schedule.

Health and Safety training is viewed as a requirement. Once you sign the attendance sheet you have met the requirement and therefore the behavior is that it doesn’t matter if you pay attention or learn.

Most of us spend 2/3 of our time away from work, company policies, and supervision. If we practice at risk behavior outside the work place and we spend most of our time away from work, then the same thought process or behavior will leak into the work environment. Have you done any of the following outside of work?

  • Used a ladder incorrectly (step ladder against wall, top rung, extension ladder in back of pick-up for extra height).
  • Used a tool inappropriately (not what it’s designed for) because you didn’t want to get the right tool (time concept), or purchase the right tool.
  • Used your hand as a hammer.
  • Did not wear hearing protection while cutting grass or using weed trimmer.
  • Text while driving.
  • Did not wear a seat belt while driving.

The behavior outside the workplace will influence our behavior in the work environment. Employees will “jerry rig” something or make use of an inappropriate tool even when the appropriate tool is only 100 feet away. This is done even when the company’s expectations are for them to obtain and use the correct tool no matter the distance they may need to travel. In fact, they are paid to use the correct tool aren’t they?

All employees need to see the value in their actions. Safety can be a priority, but priorities change. That’s why some employees may only see management focus on safety following an incident. Its then they see the big push for safety. After a period of time it reverts back to production. That may not be the reality of what is going on in the organization, but the employee’s perception is that the focus is only on safety because of the incident. Does your organization have daily employee meetings? If so, are only production issues discussed during those meetings? Is safety discussed equally? If you only discuss safety 10% of the time and production issues 90%, subconsciously the employees have done the math. In their minds they have determined what the value of the company is. Remember we need QC and PM for our labor force because we can’t produce a product without labor.

Value is the key. All employees have to see the value in the tasks they perform or they run the risk of not always following procedures. When we hurt ourselves we don’t typically repeat the action that got us hurt; well at least for a period of time. The more serious the injury, the longer we modify our behavior. However, over time many of us would revert back to the original behavior that got us hurt in the first place if don’t see the value in it.

In order to modify behavior, one has to be willing to change. How many of you made a New Year’s resolution? Are you still doing it? Why not? It’s difficult to change. Most only change for security or comfort. You have to be very disciplined or passionate about something in order to make it a change in your life. We can recognize at risk behavior, but we fail to incorporate change. We are more likely to make a change in our life if we add or connect it to something we already do or value. I’ll use a crude example. Most bathe and brush their teeth everyday…..so you have a habit (behavior). No matter if you are at home or out of town you bathe and brush your teeth. So add or link a behavior with a task you already perform as a habit. In this example I enter a bathroom every day, so I added a good habit of using the door frame of the bathroom to stretch my arms and shoulders. I repeated it several times until I’m eventually doing it without thinking about it. Putting on your seatbelt in the car is another example. We all have habits; both good and bad ones. Safety needs to be a habit (something that is repeated and predictable).

  • Need to make the value connection with it. (want to do it; wear seatbelt)
  • Incorporate it into a routine.
  • Repeat it until it becomes sub-conscience (you do it without thinking) When you go up a set of stairs you don’t tell yourself that’s a 7 inch step…oh wait that next one is 7 inches too. You can go up or down a set of stairs without thinking about it. You learned this spacing as a child and through repetition you took it to the sub-conscience. If I throw in a 10 inch step you will trip.
  • Good safe work habits protect us when we are not focused and not at our best.
  • Cannot expect a person to be focus on a task 100% of the time.

Everyday millions of employees enter the workforce thinking about life issues (family, health, parenting, spouse, financial, etc.). It’s when we use safe work habits (routine, sub-conscience) that we will be protected when we are not at our best or focused on the task at hand. We go to work to earn compensation in order to support our family or to enjoy life outside of work. Most understand the value in working. One event at work could impact your ability to support what matters in life. Do you think your behavior plays a role in whether you can support what matters? One decision you make or don’t make on one particular day can alter whether you get to go home.

It is also important to understand that we focus on the acute versus chronic risk. What I mean is that employees will associate risk with acute (short term negative results). If it makes them sick, gives them watery eyes, a cough or they may lose a finger; they would process that as risk. The chronic (long term) risk is what employees struggle with. Employees fail to make the connection that their chronic behavior puts them at risk. If we got lung cancer from smoking one cigarette then most would not smoke it. Hearing loss is also another good example of chronic risk and our associated behavior of not wearing hearing protection.

I was at a facility the other day where three employees were inside a machine. If this machine was operated it would have crushed all three of them. The machine was not isolated. What made it worse was that the operating controls were around the corner where an operator puts his feet up on the desk near the controls. Why the risk?

If an employee dresses up in a category 4 electrical suit 12 time in a row on a hot summer day to engage/disengage the same electrical power source (15 seconds of work) and nothing happens…..is it reasonable to assume there is no value in his PPE? In fact the PPE only makes him hot. Well he didn’t wear it the rest of the shift and he was caught in an Arc blast. Five cosmetic surgeries and three years later, he is not back to work. His life forever changed.

In Conclusion

Recognize and understand behavior. Develop procedures not just for compliance, but to manage all risks including behavioral. Train in a manner that employees can relate to value, not just at work, but at home. Develop good safety work habits. Employees are an asset. If they don’t show up for work they are impacted and the company is impacted as well. Behavior based safety is not about discipline, it’s about understanding your culture and managing all associated risks including behavior.