Behavior-Based Safety and the Missing Links

By Fulwiler, Richard D. | Occupational Hazards, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Behavior-Based Safety and the Missing Links


Fulwiler, Richard D., Occupational Hazards


Forging a strong behavior-based safely program requires attention to these two critical elements missing in many organizations.

There is no question that behavior-based safety (BBS) is 1) in vogue, 2) ef-fective in reducing injuries and illnesses, 3) seen as the "new" approach to health and safety, and 4) at risk of becoming the "program of the month."

As I read articles, listen to BBS gurus speak, talk with health and safety professionals who have implemented or are in the process of implementing BBS and speak to labor/employee representatives, it is becoming clear that the current BBS movement suffers from at least two critical omissions. The first missing link is the lack of focus on the contribution that management and its performance errors make to the occurrence of injuries and illnesses. The second is that BBS is usually introduced as a program and not integrated into the overall delivery system for health and safety or, worse yet, it becomes the health and safety delivery system.

Lack of Focus on Management

Today's BBS focuses on employees first and management, if at all, second. The origin of Procter & Gamble's highly successful approach in the mid-1970s focused initially on management and its performance errors that led to employees' unsafe behaviors. This is not a chicken-or-egg issue. To achieve a systemic and sustainable "culture change," behavior-based safety must focus initially on managers and their behaviors and then flow to employees. I suspect all of the BBS gurus would agree with the above statement. Unfortunately, it is my ob-servation that the initial and ongoing focus of today's BBS is the employee.

The best way to make the point that management performance errors must be the first point of attack is to share a gruesome story. In the mid-'70s, an employee, in attempting to clear a jammed soap stamp, lost a finger. The incident investigation report stated the cause was employee error for violating a safe practice (i.e., deenergize the stamp before reaching in to clear a jam). Action to prevent reoccurrence was that old saw: "retrain employee on job safe practices." The real basic cause, however, did not relate to the employee. Instead, it related to the supervisors (management) who, during the course of many previous shifts, observed similar unsafe behavior but failed to confront it. Their failure to address this behavior was an insidious positive reinforcement of an unsafe behavior. Therefore, the main focus of our behavior observation program started with management behavior and evolved to employees.

Failure to focus on management behavior while emphasizing employee behavior can lead to dysfunctional or less than optimum labor-management relations. How many times have we heard that today's BBS is an employee-focused program or, even worse, places blame on the employees? How many times is an employee's unsafe act preceded by incorrect supervisor or management performance as in the case of the finger amputation just described?

BBS as an Isolated Program

The second missing link is the apparent programmatic nature of today's BBS. Breakthrough and sustainable improvement in health and safety results requires health and safety to be a management system where BBS is but one of the elements. In other words BBS must be integrated into the overall approach to health and safety, which must be integrated into the organization's business process.

If line management is to own and manage health and safety, it must be put into the context of a management system. After all, these folks are trained in systematically managing such other critical business outputs as cost, production and quality. It is up to the health and safety professional to see that line managers are provided with a management system for health and safety and not expected to support a number of disparate programs such as BBS.

To illustrate this point, let's examine what a Comprehensive Behavior-Based Management System (CBBMS) could look like. …

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