Behavioral Safety: A Necessary Part of the Whole; Some Behavior-Based Safety Programs Have Been Implemented at the Expense of Engineering Controls and Management Accountability, but an Either-Or Approach Is a Recipe for Failure. (Core Practices)

By Topf, Michael | Occupational Hazards, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Behavioral Safety: A Necessary Part of the Whole; Some Behavior-Based Safety Programs Have Been Implemented at the Expense of Engineering Controls and Management Accountability, but an Either-Or Approach Is a Recipe for Failure. (Core Practices)


Topf, Michael, Occupational Hazards


Behavior-based safety (BBS) initiatives fault the worker as the primary cause of accidents and injuries, ignoring the necessity for engineering fixes to improve hazardous equipment and conditions that could eliminate potential causes of incidents. At least, that is the assertion of a number of union safety and health professionals.

Their statements suggest that BBS, by blaming the worker as the main cause of an injury or incident, takes the "spotlight" off those who really need to be involved in an improvement process--management and supervisors.

Such critics cite reports that some 90 percent to 96 percent of injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors, safety incentive programs and discipline policies. These reports, they assert, wrongly focus on line employees, letting corporate and site management abrogate their responsibility for providing the safest conditions and equipment.

Critics such as the United Auto Workers' Jim Howe, Jim Frederick of the United Steelworkers and Nancy Lessin of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO have also made public their conclusions related to incident investigations for fatalities and disabling incidents over a span of many years. They assert that most, if not all, were due to:

1. People working in unsafe conditions, with poor workplace design;

2. Failure to take proper preventive measures; and

3. Failure to provide essential safeguards.

If my understanding is correct, these and other critics of BBS state that if workplace environments and equipment were designed properly in the first place, or redesigned, the need for personal protective equipment and other safety procedures would be eliminated.

I concur with the critics of BBS who point to imperfections with many BBS approaches. Too many companies are not investing the necessary resources to truly make a difference in incident prevention. Some firms have adopted the idea from certain providers of BBS programs that line employees are where the attention and behavior change efforts need to be focused. Some business owners and leaders are taking the lives and well-being of their employees for granted and siphon off resources needed for essential safety, health and environmental improvements to other priorities. Some actions are even criminal in nature and display a blatant disregard for life and the environment.

Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water!

My concern, however, is that many of these critics lump all attempts to change unsafe behaviors into the same "tainted" category of behavior-based safety! In so doing, they inevitably make incorrect assertions about some, negating the processes that make a difference by supporting change on the part of management and line employees, while identifying and correcting unsafe conditions and work environments.

Industry is not an ideal world. Hazards are rampant. Given this reality, we need a variety of processes being pursued simultaneously to ensure the safety, health and well-being of employees. People also work alone, in routine and nonroutine situations, with no external supervision. This applies to off-the-job situations as well, which lead to a far greater number of accidents and injuries than workplaces. The only difference is that one is noted on OSHA logs and the other is not. In both cases, a valuable person is injured.

To ensure that people are safe in both environments requires a heightened level of concern and responsibility from leadership, coupled with a shift from unsafe attitudes, thinking and behaviors to safe ones. People need the awareness and skills to observe and manage their thinking and choices in any situation.

Howe and others point to the Hierarchy of Health and Safety Controls:

1. Elimination or substitution of the hazard and risk (most effective)

2. Engineering

3. Warnings

4. Training and procedures

5. Personal protective equipment, or PPE (least effective). …

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Behavioral Safety: A Necessary Part of the Whole; Some Behavior-Based Safety Programs Have Been Implemented at the Expense of Engineering Controls and Management Accountability, but an Either-Or Approach Is a Recipe for Failure. (Core Practices)
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