“It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”  — W. Edwards Deming

When I began working for Bluefield Process Safety four years ago, I was prepared to abandon my passion of psychology to pursue another – safety.  What I didn’t know is that, often, the two go hand in hand and it wasn’t long before I learned a new term: “Behavioral-Based Safety”.  Naturally, I was interested.

Pinpointing exactly when the field of behavior-based safety began is difficult.  Many believe its origins are in the 1970’s when Dr. Beth Sulzer-Azaroff and Dan Peterson, pioneers in the field, published some of the first articles on the topic.  In the 40+ years since then, behavior-based safety has evolved into a movement and it’s still growing.  That being said, it’s a trend that has safety professionals divided.  Behavior-based safety programs can be difficult to implement and measure, but statistics show that successful programs do improve worker safety. It’s important, then, for us to understand why behavior-based safety programs fail.

What is Behavior-Based Safety?

The basis of behavior-based safety is behavior analysis – the science of behavior change.  Applied behavior analysis is the application of the science of behavior change to real world problems.  Behavior-based safety, then, is the application of the science of applied behavior analysis to issues of safety in the workplace.  In short, discouraging, modifying or reinforcing behaviors to make the workplace safer.

Behavior-based safety programs encompass all employees, from the front line to upper management.  They often require a shift in culture or a change in thought, meaning any new behavior-based safety program is almost guaranteed to be met with at least some resistance and skepticism.  Statistics may show that a properly implemented program works, but they also show that 70% of such initiatives undertaken by American companies fail.  Why do they fail and what can we do to ensure their success?

Positive Reinforcement

In the course of my study of psychology, two subjects stand out in my memory.  Behavioral Psychology taught me what drives human behavior and how to alter it.  Adolescent Psychology was all about how children learn and their cognitive development.  The common theme of both subjects was the importance of positive reinforcement.  Both behavior and learning are driven by it.  This means that positive reinforcement is one of the most important aspects of a successful behavior-based safety program.  If training in the principals and applications of positive reinforcement aren’t part of a behavior-based safety plan, then whatever reinforcement that is currently supporting unsafe work behaviors will continue to drive those unsafe behaviors.

For a behavior-based safety program to be successful, positive reinforcement must be systematically delivered for safe behaviors.  The reinforcement must be delivered immediately, consistently and appropriately if the desired safe behavior is to turn into a habit.  This is where many behavior-based safety programs fail.  Whether it’s due to lack of enthusiasm or knowledge, positive reinforcement is often applied superficially, if at all.  Correct use of positive reinforcement is the building block for any behavior-based program.

Encompassing All Employees

Long-lasting change requires everyone’s participation.  Behavior-based safety plans fail when they target the behavior of hourly employees alone.  True change starts at the top of any organization.  If both upper and mid-level management aren’t invested in the program or the methods, the program can’t succeed.

There are two important ways to ensure your management teams are set for success.  The first is to train them.  If they don’t understand how a behavior-based safety program works, they can’t properly implement it.  Teach your managers how to support behaviors and how to track both their own actions and the actions of the employees.  Give them a feedback system to communicate in an effective manner with their team.  Be sure they understand how to appropriately distribute positive reinforcement for safe behaviors and communicate to members of their team what the expectations for safe behaviors are. Providing managers with expectations and measurement tools keeps them from feeling like they are stumbling in the dark and makes uniform enforcement a possibility.

The other way to be sure a management team is set for success is to make certain that each level of management is positively reinforced for desired management behaviors and that the behaviors and reinforcement can be tracked for feedback.  From this perspective, it’s easy to see how change starts at the top and to understand why the engagement and dedication of the highest levels in an organization can make or break a program.  Hourly employees should be reinforced for safe behavior, managers and supervisors should be reinforced for supportive behavior and leaders at the top of the organization should support the program as a whole. Measured roles for all employees is essential to success.

The Blame Game

A program that’s built on reinforcing safe behaviors of front-line workers shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that all incidents are the result of unsafe behaviors. Behavior-based safety programs often fail when tunnel vision focused on behavior leads to the conclusion that all workplace incidents are the result of the risky employee behaviors that managers are trying to prevent.  When a management strategy focuses on behavior, it’s easy to overlook legitimate job hazards as a cause of incidents and to concentrate instead on risky behavior that’s already the subject of scrutiny.

Rather than shaming and blaming employees for unsafe behavior, management must do their part to minimize risk through education.  Educate employees about the potential hazards associated with their specific duties.  Make sure they’re aware of the expectations of the program and give them the tools they need to succeed.  Properly reinforce safe behaviors and discourage unsafe ones.  The goal in the aftermath of an incident should never be to find someone to blame.  Even if the incident was a result of an unsafe act, what failed?  Training?  Reinforcement?  The program as a whole?  There’s something to learn from every incident and there’s always somewhere to do better – but rarely is there just one person to blame.

To Each Their Own

Behavioral based safety programs aren’t for everyone.  Some organizations are better suited for them than others.  They aren’t something you can force or make fit if the entire organization isn’t fully dedicated to the success of the program.  Leaders are often discouraged by the amount of work involved in implementing one of these programs. After all, the goal of the program is to change human behavior.

It’s not going to be easy.  However, behavior-based programs don’t have to be all-consuming.  Find one you like and tailor it to work within your company.  If all employees, managers and leaders included, are educated, engaged and willing to put in the work, the program will be successful.

Matching a safety strategy to an organization is no small task and there’s no one size fits all solution.  Try new approaches or programs and do what’s best for you but keep behavior-based programs in mind.  You can never have too many weapons in your arsenal.