Safety College

What is Behavioral Based Safety (BBS)?

Essentially Behavioral Based Safety, commonly referred to as BBS, began existence as a suite of interventions heavily grounded in basic behavioural psychology. The sort of stuff the late Professor BF Skinner was famous for. We should not forget that BF spent most of his life working with rats. Indeed one of the most famous tools for assessing the outcomes of the behavioural model is known as the “Skinner Box”. It is important we know and acknowledge the history of where BBS comes from.

BBS, in its traditional form is actually quite an ineffective tool. It is critical though we do not try and think of BBS as some sort of “magic”; it is far from that. Implemented poorly it will surely result in a range of hazards being deliberately “hidden”; they are still there and they shall still bite you – one day.

You often hear behavioral safety advocates saying things like “ninety percent of your accidents are caused by unsafe behaviours; therefore if we can modify the unsafe behaviours we get rid of the accidents”. Now, this is actually nothing new. It is actually the work of H. W. Heinrich. Heinrich was an Assistant Superintendent of the Engineering and Inspection Division of Travellers Insurance Company during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Thus the claim that 90% (or a similar number) of injuries are due to unsafe acts is a “straight lift” of Heinrich’s work. It just is NOT true!

Heinrich’s conclusions were based on poorly investigated supervisor accident reports, which pretty much held workers accountable for their own injuries; accident causation, as a science, did not exist at the time. Heinrich actually concluded that 88% of all industrial accidents were primarily caused by unsafe acts (his actual data only gave 70% – nobody has ever been able to find that data though). DuPont says that 96% of injuries and illnesses are caused by unsafe acts. Behavior Science Technology (BST) has stated that between 80% and 95% of all accidents are caused by unsafe behaviour. When we really try and explore the science behind these claims we find a fair bit of “poetic licence” being used.

Managers like behavior based safety because it shifts much of the responsibility for health and safety to the workforce itself, and does not require significant change in the work process, engineering design or management system. No wonder it fails, more often than not.

Companies promoting behavior based safety programs as the OH&S panacea claim the number of lost time injuries (LTI’s) drop with these programs. Lost time accidents are known to be amongst the least reliable measures in determining the effectiveness of a health and safety program, since they are often highly dependent on a company’s ability to put injured workers on light duty etc. The overt and covert manipulation of LTI data by people at all levels within a business is often frightening to behold.

Injuries and illnesses are caused by exposure to hazards. Hazards include any aspect of technology or activity that produces risk. Injuries and illnesses occur when our bodies come in contact with levels of energy or toxic material that are greater than the threshold which our bodies can stand. The greater the amount of energy or the more toxic the material, the greater the severity of injury or illness. The probability of incidents is mostly dependent on the duration and frequency of exposure. Of course there is a significant behavioral input into this equation. My issue is it but one of many; the BBS community strongly assets it is really the “only one”.

In 1950 the US National Safety Council began describing a hierarchy of controls to apply when reducing and eliminating hazards. The hierarchy is accepted globally. Proponents of behavior based safety programs can’t really support it, because it contradicts the theory that 95% of accidents are caused by unsafe acts of workers. Within the globally recognised Hierarchy of Control “training of workers” is at the very bottom. Within BBS it is near the very top.

Traditional behavior based programs often implement low level controls, rather than controlling hazards at the source. Let us consider a very powerful and emotive example. In the 1950’s manufacturers bitterly fought passage of the US Refrigerator Safety Act which eliminated locks on refrigerator doors and established a very low amount of force needed to push open the door from the inside. The catalyst (or trigger event/s) was the death of significant numbers of young children! The manufacturers position was that these deaths were as a consequence of poor behaviour being exhibited by both parents and children. Kids were not being “trained” about the risks associated with playing around refrigerators and parents were not “supervising” as they should be. The US Refrigerator Safety Act passed in 1956. No child has died in a refrigerator designed since enactment of the this Standard.

I make the point again traditional BBS rarely works. 

Then again, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. There are aspects of BBS that can actually be useful. Transformational Safety® has developed the Psycho-Behavioral Safety (PBS) System. This methodology integates psychological science as key element within the behavioral paradigm.

Transformational Safety® is optimally placed to assess suitability for a PBS based solution; and to design a bespoke intervention that considers the unique needs, and maturity, of every unique safety culture.

“Most organizations operate in failure states and that just remains invisible because bad stuff is not happening. We might call that the ‘normalization of deviance’ and, make no mistake, it will kill.”

David G Broadbent

Safety Psychologist, Transformational Safety

Ricky, Atlanta

“I was fortunate to attend Transformational Safety’s Anatomies of Disaster Program. This was amongst the most powerful two days I have ever spent in a room. From the outset David Broadbent set the scene by dedicating the program to the late Rick Rescorla – the man who is credited with saving over 2700 lives on 9/11. Throughout the two days David would often respectively reflect and remember those who had died, or been injured, in the disasters we explored. He would say, and I will never forget, “…we must always remember those that lost their lives lift us up into the light of understanding”. I learnt so much. HRO, Resilience Engineering, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and more. Those of us who were there are still talking about it…… Thankyou David

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