MRO Magazine

It’s All in Your Head: Experts weigh the pros and cons of behavioural-based safety


June 14, 2001
By PEM Magazine

Dupont calls it the "safe person concept." Proctor & Gamble calls it the "behaviour observation system." Still other companies call it different things.

Generally speaking, it’s known as "behavioural-based safety." It’s attracting attention because when it has been implemented, it has often been able to dramatically reduce incident and accident rates. But it’s a long-term proposition and it’s not without its critics, who point to high costs, a long payoff and alternative methods of making a plant safe.

While most managers of industrial plants recognize the crucial importance of worker safety, any safety manager knows that equipment, guards, warnings and procedures can only go so far. If employees don’t follow the safe procedures, if they take risks on the job, then eventually they’ll be injured. "People often think it’s the hazard that hurts them, but it’s how they behave around the hazard that causes the injury," says safety consultant Larry Wilson of Electrolab, a company that sells industrial safety products and services, including BBS training programs.

Behaviour-based safety programs address the issue of workers’ specific, on-the-job behaviours or actions. They engage the entire workforce in identifying risky actions or behaviours and in finding ways to eliminate them. And they’ve been used in workplaces that already have effective, traditional safety programs based on eliminating hazards, using safer alternatives to hazardous materials, guarding machines, protecting workers, establishing procedures and training employees.


Procter & Gamble Canada , for instance, has been using its "key element program" for more than a decade. When it bought its Weston, Ontario plant from another company in 1993, that operation had a Total Incident Rate, or TIR, of 6.7. "That’s very high," says Michael Gagnon, P&G’s Government Relations, Health, Safety and Environmental Affairs representative. "When you’re running a TIR of 6.7, it means that people tend to think accidents are a normal part of work. It means you need to change the culture — actually, you need to change their behaviour." At P&G’s Weston plant, this change took six years, but by 1999, they had driven that incident report rating down to 0.4.

How did they do this? One part of the "Key Element Program" is behaviour observation. This simply means observing workers’ behaviours, identifying the key elements of those behaviours, identifying which ones put people at risk of injury or illness, and then pointing them out and asking workers to change these behaviours.

"For instance, most distribution centres have lift trucks, and if they do, they may have a stop sign that both lift truck drivers and pedestrians in the plant must obey. But if pedestrians don’t obey the stop sign at the corner, they’re at risk of getting hit. Therefore, that’s a critical behaviour," Gagnon explains. "They key to behaviour observation systems is looking for critical behaviours before they become accidents."

What BBS does is identify specific unsafe work practices that may be ingrained habits among a workforce. Adherants to BBS don’t settle for "that’s the way we’ve always done it," but empower every worker to identify unsafe behaviours and demand changes to make the workplace safer.

"There are certain behaviours that we know cause calamitous results: for example, on the road, we can identify the behaviours that lead to accidents, such as following too closely or running red lights," explains safety consultant Bill Blackborrow of Philip Services. "In a behaviour observation system, we all get together and agree on those behaviours that lead to catastrophic results and work to reduce or eliminate them."

These are the two most important elements of the successful behaviour-based safety programs: observation and reduction of risky behaviours; and the participation of the whole workforce.

The origins of behaviour-based safety
Because it’s so different from traditional safety programs, which focus on materials, procedures and equipment, BBS is usually described as a "cultural change" in an organization. Its origins go back to the 1930s and the research of H.W. Heinrich, an insurance investigator. He found that a high proportion of industrial accidents and injuries were caused by unsafe acts or behaviours exhibited by workers themselves. While safety equipment and materials, as well as written procedures, may be in place, injuries happen when workers don’t follow the procedures.

BBS grew out of this early research. It’s based on careful observation of the behaviours, or actions, that take place in a workplace, whether it’s a plant, a warehouse or, yes, an office. The next step is critical analysis — is the behaviour likely to contribute to an accident?

Most BBS programs today follow the same pattern: employees get together to identify common workplace behaviours, then determine which are likely to lead to accidents, and how to change or eliminate them. After that, supervisors take random, frequent observations of workplace behaviours. Any unsafe behaviours are addressed immediately — without any kind of disciplinary action. "Behaviour observation engages people in safety, and encourages looking out for your co-workers," says Blackborrow. "The long-term goal is to get everyone involved." Not tying behaviour observation to any sort of discipline removes any threat from the program; employees aren’t worried about being at fault for their behaviours, nor need they worry about causing a co-worker trouble by pointing out risky behaviours. What’s more, they can bring up these problems to management without fear of disciplinary action.

Not everyone in the industrial safety world is thrilled about behaviour-based safety. The focus on the worker is just the problem, say the many critics of behaviour-based safety. The Transport Workers Union (TWU), based in New York City, points out that the underlying cause of accidents, injuries and workplace illness is exposure of workers to hazards. Traditional safety texts stress that worker safety starts with elimination of risk through good design of the workplace, replacement of hazardous materials and processes with safer ones, and training in safe procedures. Then, if those have been done to the fullest extent possible, the next step is protecting workers with safety guards or enclosures around machines, safety devices, warning signs, ventilation systems and so on. Worse, the attention on safe behaviour can create fear among employees. They may feel inhibited against reporting injuries for fear of being blamed for causing them. Ironically, a discipline-free program is sometimes perceived, because of the way it asks all employees to look at the behaviours that contribute to accidents, as something that blames workers for performing the actions that cause accidents.

Making BBS work
This, however, is the opposite of what BBS is meant to do. Many experts who favour behaviour-based programs say that a BBS program is not a substitute or an alternative to traditional safety programs. Every plant needs to ensure that machines are properly guarded, that safety equipment is in place and in use, and that workers know the safe way to work. BBS is aimed at reducing the accidents that still occur in workplaces that have all the physical safety equipment and precautions in place; at eliminating accidents that occur because someone decides to take a chance and not follow safe procedures "just this once."

"What about workers’ perceived empowerment for safety — the belief that they contribute to preventing their friends and coworkers from getting hurt? These are bottom-line ?Â¥feeling states’ that lead to continuous and long-term improvement in safety, and in both the quality and quantity of production," says E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., a professor at Virginia Tech and a senior partner with Safety Performance Solutions, in an article published in "Safe Workplace," a Web publication of the National Council on Compensation Insurance in the U.S.

To succeed, BBS requires a complete buy-in from everyone in the workplace, management as well as workers. Implementing a behaviour based safety system can be proposed from within the ranks of the employees, but must be driven from the top. And it requires a deep commitment from management, as implementation and success take a long time. Just consider the number and the nature of the steps involved:

  • Observation of workers at work;
  • Identification of critical behaviours;
  • Singling out risk behaviours;
  • Finding safer behaviours;
  • Training staff in behaviour observation; and
  • Creating a co-operative climate where employees can make and receive suggestions from each other without developing into confrontations.

This is the other major objection to BBS: it takes such a long time to implement and to make it work. The payoff, according to the Transport Workers Union as well as major consulting firms, can be up to five years. Meanwhile, the program requires corporate resources in terms of money, management time, training and worker time. Often, the biggest stumbling block is convincing management to make the investment necessary when the payoff is so far off.

Does it work?
Is BBS worth the effort, the time and the cultural change? For many major manufacturers, the answer has been "yes."

Dupont Canada has implemented BBS under its "safe person" program across its operations. Its Kingston operations, for instance, have gone nearly 10 years without a restricted injury, and more than three years without a lost-time injury. "People are very safety-conscious. Being ?Â¥busy’ is not accepted as a justification for not following safety procedures," says Frank Cuvelier, occupational health resource professional, Dupont Canada. And putting safety first is a prerequisite of every job at the company, he says.

BBS represents the safety industry taking that extra step towards creating a truly safe workplaces. While all the physical safety provisions are in place, workers won’t be truly safe until they believe in following the safe way of doing things. Behaviour-based safety enlists the employees in watching out for each other.

Sidebar: Implementing BBS in your plant
According to behaviour-based safety expert Bill Blackborrow, director of health and safety at consulting firm Philip Services, there are six major steps in implementing a BBS progam in your plant:

1. Convince the organization that it’s the right thing to do. In addition to a traditional safety program, BBS is the next step in enhancing workers’ safety in the plant. One way to help do this, suggests Blackborrow, is to phase it in through the organization. "It’s okay to start in pockets. You could start with supervisor training, the spread the program through the workplace."

2. Communicate communicate, and communicate. Give workers and team-members ample opportunity to ask questions. Listen to the feedback. Not everyone will buy into the idea, but look for majority support. Once the plan is in effect, however, manufacturers have to enforce 100 percent compliance with safety rules, particularly if the consequence of unsafe behaviours can be fatal.

3. Train the whole workforce. Employees need two major new skill sets to make BBS succeed. First, they need to know how to observe behavirours and how to find unsafe actions. Second, they need to learn communication skills to allow them to point out unsafe behaviours in their colleagues without being confrontational.

4. Identify behaviours by "natural work groups." Each area has critical behaviours; employees who are familiar with the area and the behaviours will be better able to spot, and correct, unsafe actions.

5. Graph your results. Everyone wants to be successful. Creating a visual aid, such as a graph showing the number of safe and unsafe behaviours or the number of days without a lost-time accident, will go a long way to motivating employees to work safely.

6. Recognize or reward employees for safe behaviour. The reward doesn’t have to be money, it could be a coupon for a free product, a T-shirt, anything.

7. When a group achieves a goal, celebrate. Celebration is the glue that holds a program like this together. A goal could be something like so many accident-free days. A celebration provides positive, long-term reinforcement, and recognizes people when they’re doing something safely.

Scott Bury is an Ottawa-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to PEM. You can reach him at