What’s the Scoop on Behavior-Based Safety?

Behavior-based safety (BBS) is a program that defines and encourages safe behavior and calls for a safety management system to be put in place to change a company’s safety culture. A few decades ago, when BBS was introduced, it became one of the top techniques for injury prevention in the workplace. Employers expected to see dramatic declines in worker injuries but the program proved to be expensive and in the long term, they had little to show for their investment.

Experts argue that the expectations were unrealistic from the onset since the program assumes that employees know what they should do and simply have to be reminded. Injuries rates fell slightly but rapidly plateaued after the implementation of BBS. Occupational injuries related to at-risk work behavior still plague the workplace with an estimated 16 deaths and 36,000 injuries on a daily basis.

Reasons BBS Lacks Effectiveness

BBS was designed to be part of a bigger safety system but many companies assumed that it was the only approach necessary to reduce incidents by improving safety. Traditional behavior-based safety programs don’t look into the factors that drive employees to be in hazardous situations. In one facility, for instance, employees suffered repetitive injuries while running up the lunchroom stairwell. Monitors were placed in the hallways reminding them not to run. Running continued until an employee fell and was left paralyzed. One manager examined the case and found out that running was instigated by the lack of enough chairs in the lunchroom, which meant that workers had to stand to eat their lunches if they entered late. The company had failed to look at the cause of the behavior from the start.

Many employers expect BBS to be a simple approach to implement but fail at execution. BBS must be continually improved and adapted to meet the unique needs of an organization. Also, the BBS focuses too much on worker behavior leaving out the processes and efforts of leadership. Experts argue that employers telling their workers how to behave puts pressure on them, which consequently creates a pushback. The system masks organizational and management failures. Worker behavior is only one component of the system and the overall engagement and commitment of leadership are equally important to correct workers and their exposure.