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Behavior-Based Safety: What’s the Verdict?

From its infancy in the late 1970s and early 1980s until now, behavior-based safety (BBS) has been a source of conflict in the safety profession, among company and union leadership, and even between practitioners. Nonetheless, after 30-plus years of use at companies that run the gamut of industries in dozens of countries around the world, it seems safe to assume that the theory and practice of BBS are here to stay. And since that is the case, this reality begs several questions. What is it about the BBS system that companies, safety professionals and practitioners find appealing? What are the criticisms of BBS and are they valid? How have the proponents of BBS answered them? How is BBS different or better than it was 30 or even 20 years ago? What is its future?

The scope of this article will not allow an in-depth look at each of these questions, but it will provide insight into how BBS was originally designed, how it has spread, how it has been criticized and how those criticisms have been answered. A key topic that will be reviewed is how BBS has evolved over the last three decades. Longevity demands change, and change for the better, if a system is to endure in the ever-changing industrial climate. When finished, readers should have a better understanding of the origins of BBS, its pros and cons, how it has changed over the years and whether it may be a good fit for their organization.

The History and Definition of BBS
In the 1970s, industry began to take a serious look at how behavioral science could improve processes in order to increase production, enhance efficiency and, ultimately, boost profitability. As companies and behavioral scientists began to see successes from their efforts, the natural transition was to see if the application of similar methodologies and theories could enhance safety in the workplace. There was also a growing desire to shift from lagging metrics – injury rates and accident analyses – to leading indicators – types of data that would allow for predicting and preventing accidents instead of just reacting to them.

In “Moving to the 2nd Generation in Behavior-Based Safety,” published in the May 2001 issue of ASSE’s “Professional Safety,” author Thomas R. Krause traces the nexus of BBS to the work of psychologist Judi Komaki in the area of applied behavior analysis. Krause also notes work in the same time frame by himself and his partner, psychiatrist John Hidley, as well as Dan Petersen, E. Scott Geller and Frank Bird. The term “behavior-based safety” also appeared around this time in a methodology being developed at Procter & Gamble. As additional safety professionals and companies began to jump on the bandwagon, the popularity of the methodology grew steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Practitioners cropped up everywhere singing the praises of BBS.

The mid-1990s saw a significant boost in the number of companies trying BBS and in the number of organizations that were implementing it into their safety programs. One key factor in this boom was the work of Geller, who serves as director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems at Virginia Tech and senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions, a company that specializes in BBS. Geller developed seven key principles to teach the application of behavior analysis for injury reduction. His work with the seven principles and his mantra of actively caring for safety were well received among colleagues and a wide range of companies. The BBS culture flourished in this atmosphere.

Definitions of BBS vary depending upon whom one asks and the context of their involvement. Appropriately enough, two of the arguably better definitions belong to two of the early developers of the system, Geller and Krause. Geller has stated that BBS focuses on what people do, analyzes why they do it, and then applies a research-supported intervention strategy to improve what people do. In the previously referenced ASSE article, Krause states that BBS “integrates behavioral science, quality and organization development principles with safety management in order to reduce industrial injuries.”

The ultimate goal of BBS is to drive down injuries by convincing people – or, more accurately, getting people to convince themselves – that the best course of action, both on the job and off, is to adopt the safest behaviors available to them because that is meaningful to them, their co-workers, their families and their companies. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it conveys the general nature of the system’s goals.

Evolution of the System
When any system is in its developmental stages, there is a lack of hard data to support claims that it works; BBS was no different. However, there was data on the effectiveness of applied behavior analysis in other endeavors, so the prospects for success in industrial safety were not far-fetched. Over time, as researchers such as Krause, Komaki, Geller and others were able to collect the numbers to evaluate BBS, it was possible to make plausible statements about where BBS programs were succeeding and failing. From this information, positive changes could be made.

One important area in which this thinking was applied dealt with the targets of behavior change analysis and activities. In the earliest years, BBS was driven by management, and supervisors were the ones who were trained in the methodology, completed all the observations, and offered all feedback and reinforcement. The process evolved in subsequent years into an employee-driven system. Workers were trained, completed observations and offered feedback to the exclusion of management personnel. Then, in the late 1990s, the system underwent another substantial shift in focus, and all employees at every level of the company were engaged in the process; this is the integrated model, and it targets both management and employee behavior. In the article “Behavioral Safety Theory,” published in the October 2003 issue of ASSE’s “Professional Safety,” author Stephen E. Johnson notes that BBS grew into a systems-thinking mode, distancing itself from “mechanistic if-then explanations,” and that this shift has been “crucial to the interpretation of observations.” The changes have been incremental, occurring over a span of 35 years, and practitioners and researchers are in general agreement that they have improved the system.

System Structure and Criticisms
In the July 2000 “Professional Safety” article entitled “Does BBS Work?” authors Beth Sulzer-Azaroff and John Austin list the following as fundamental elements of a BBS system:
• Identify or target behaviors that impact safety.
• Define these behaviors precisely enough to measure them reliably.
• Develop and implement mechanisms for measuring these behaviors in order to determine their current status and set reasonable goals.
• Provide feedback.
• Reinforce progress.

While the needs of an organization will determine how the various elements are customized and presented, the overall structure of the program will follow this pattern. Critical to the success of BBS within any company are several factors, such as being strict in following the basic structure, but allowing for organizational needs; communicating constantly and well; getting leadership out front; training well; focusing on relevant behaviors; and being sure to consult with subject matter experts regarding technical aspects.

Although BBS has enjoyed a great deal of success, there are criticisms of the system, some of them quite harsh. In his previously referenced article, Krause notes what he calls “perceived weaknesses” – that the system is focused solely on the workers, that the initiatives distract attention from technical and engineering improvements, that the system is inflexible, and that it creates too great a drain on organizational resources. While he agrees that these things can occur when companies fail to correctly implement or maintain the system, he believes they are not true of a well-run program.

Other critics cite the reliance of BBS on rewards for reinforcement of behavior, indicating that this type of incentive – if you do not get hurt or behave unsafely, you and/or your group will get some kind of prize – can do more than just discourage incident reporting; it can cause employees to be afraid to report injuries for fear that they will be punished by management or treated badly by their co-workers whom they have caused to miss out on their prize. In fact, trade unions are some of the harshest critics for just this reason. In the November 2000 article “Blame the Worker: The Rise of Behavioral-Based Safety Programs,” published in “Multinational Monitor,” authors James Frederick and Nancy Lessin claim that “[w]orkers whose employers have implemented behavior-based safety programs describe an atmosphere of fear that descends upon the workplace, where workers are reluctant to report injuries and illnesses for fear of being labeled an ‘unsafe worker.’” They also strongly believe that BBS is designed to place blame for nearly all unsafe acts entirely on workers while ignoring any systemic problems that may be driving the behavior.

Analysis of the Criticisms
An organization using BBS is capable of any or all of the criticisms leveled at the system. It is certain that there are companies out there that do punish workers for reporting injuries, either overtly or through withholding rewards. No doubt there are also companies that implement the program with the full expectation that whatever unsafe activities do occur are entirely the fault of the person who committed them, whether they result in an injury or not. They see no culpability of the company or its systems. However, in answering the critics, proponents of BBS would say that these cases are not the norm and the systems were likely installed by subpar practitioners, or that the company cultures are not currently capable of supporting a viable, correctly run behavioral program.

Of these criticisms, the one that has the most credibility concerns the use of rewards to reinforce behavior change and the fear that such reinforcement has the undesirable consequence of driving down incident reporting. OSHA began trying to address this issue in the late 1990s, but was squelched by public uproar. However, they did ultimately issue a guidance document that addressed it in the form of safety incentives, saying that the use of any incentive that discourages incident reporting would be considered a violation of whistle-blower statutes, which they are charged with enforcing. Companies have to be very careful that they are not artificially incentivizing behaviors. True behavior change must come from trust that the change is an intrinsically more valuable manner in which to behave. (For more about incentives, read “Safety Incentive Programs” by Jim Vaughn, CUSP, at

BBS has been around for more than 30 years. That kind of longevity in the safety world is rare and typically indicates that a system is working. That would certainly seem to be the case with BBS. It is not a magic spell that will suddenly make all of a company’s safety woes disappear, nor is it designed to be. Criticisms of the system can be well founded if the system is not installed correctly and handled by knowledgeable, experienced practitioners. In BBS systems in which reinforcement is given in the form of rewards and prizes, a great deal of caution must be exercised. Incentive programs that focus on giving employees tangible items for being safe – usually translated as not having any injuries – can quickly drive down incident reporting and create a culture that encourages hiding injuries. That is a recipe for disaster from both regulatory and ethical standpoints.

The hard data that has been collected over the years provides evidence that BBS is effective at reducing injuries and the associated injury rates. The behavioral principles upon which it is founded are sound and time-tested. Large, well-respected companies continue to devote sizable resources to the development and maintenance of BBS systems. All of this collectively points to a successful, fruitful, dependable methodology that gets results. The company that decides to implement a BBS system at their site, however, must remember a truth that is echoed by some of the early designers: BBS must never be instituted in a vacuum. The company must use it as part of a robust overall program that will reinforce and be reinforced by the BBS system. When used as an integrated part of the overall whole, BBS can and should help any company improve safety.

About the Author: Mike Caro, CUSP, is the HSE manager at Willbros Field Solutions. He has 17 years of experience as a lineman and more than eight years of experience as a safety professional. Caro is a board member of the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network and serves on the national leadership committee for the Utilities Practice Specialty of ASSE.

Safety Management, Leadership Development