Behavior Based Safety (BBS) is a workplace safety philosophy that is rooted in behavioral psychology. It has, in principle, the potential to move companies and their employees toward impressive safety goals. But in many cases, expensive and protracted BBS program deployments have either yielded no results or made things worse.

Why have the outcomes been so disappointing? Because most companies that try to apply BBS principles don't let them penetrate far enough into the company’s culture. It's treated more like a topical solution that is applied only to the outer skin of the organization. As such, it never has a chance to seek out the root cause of behavioral failure or the defects, injuries, and fatalities that come from them.

Case Studies in Failed Behavior Based Safety Implementation

The Lunchroom Stairs

Larry Hansen gives us an ideal example, quoted in EHS Today:

“[Hansen] visited a facility that incurred repetitive losses from injuries employees suffered running up the lunchroom stairwell. Finally, an employee fell and broke his leg, at which point management adopted a BBS program, installing monitors in the hallway leading to the stairwell to remind employees to walk up the steps and to reiterate the company policy, which called for no running... employees continued running up the stairs until a second major incident occurred, leaving an employee paralyzed.”

Hansen's take on the problem is that "They weren't asking the most basic question of employees: 'Why are you running up the stairs?" The answer, it turns out, was incredibly simple: "There aren't enough chairs in the lunchroom."

And that's what the company missed. The employees weren't being impatient or forgetting the rules. Rather, they knew that the last ones at the top of those stairs would have to eat their lunch standing – not an appealing prospect after they had already spent a few hours on their feet.

This story illustrates a classic weakness in many BBS programs. They focus on proactive processes, on methods for changing behavior. But that won't be effective unless you first understand how real human behavior works. In this case, no amount of rule reinforcement was going to stop workers from running up those stairs until a few more chairs would be added to the lunchroom.

Commuter Train Stations

A similar scenario plays out regularly and with grim results at commuter train stations.

Signage that warns people against illegally crossing the tracks is not sufficient to prevent all fatalities. Although the number of people killed by trains in any major urban or suburban area due to unsafe track crossings is a fraction of a percent of the weekly ridership, any life lost is too many.

Beyond the initial tragedy, these accidental deaths cause mayhem for the entire commuting train system, the freight system that shares the tracks, and the roads and highways that must shoulder the overflow.

These fatalities happen despite the fact that most people who cross the tracks illegally do so in full awareness of the carefully placed signs warning against it. Those signs, on their own, are simply not enough to change behavior.

BBS and Company Culture

In both of these cases – and in many other places where BBS has been implemented – the focus has been on observing and tracking behaviors and then prescribing alternative activities. Although this might seem like a pragmatic approach to improving productivity and safety, it seldom addresses the company culture that is at the root of the problem.

Time management is a classic example. It is one of the most common challenges faced by workers of all types, from deskbound employees to workers in construction, trucking, manufacturing, and every other business that delivers products or services on a timeline. Time management experts are brought in to analyze ergonomic behavior, make recommendations, and then deliver workshops and products intended to right the wrong.

Unfortunately, this approach is based on a theoretical ideal, not a practical reality. Session participants sit with deer-in-the-headlights eyes as they wonder how they will explain these new prioritization behaviors to their managers.

And some explanation will likely be required. Managers, senior managers, and C-suite officers rarely attend these time management or BBS workshops alongside their employees. If they did, however, they would be doing a great service to their employees. By their presence, they would be endorsing the new best practices. This kind of gesture often does more good than anything the instructor could say, since it basically give workers permission to change their behavior and more importantly, the company's leaders could hear directly from their front-line troops and learn where the problems truly lie.

Theory Versus Implementation

As a specialist in BBS and productivity practices, I have delivered a great many workshops and have observed the division between BBS theory and its implementation. In many cases, behavior audits turn into exercises in employee blaming sessions.

The application of “applied behavior analysis” to workplace safety leads employers to expect a quick fix. When that doesn't happen, employees and management alike become disillusioned. Then, either they slip back into their old habits or more money is thrown at the same inadequate solution.

Ron Bowles, director of operations for Portland, Oregon-based Strategic Safety Associates, puts it this way:

“The key to true, positive behavior change is to create an environment where, rather than have safety as something that is being done to me or for me, it’s something that’s being done with me or by me. Once I begin to own it, I can have incredible success.”

Motivation Is the Key to BBS Success

Behavior Based Safety must focus on behavior. That's obvious. But to be successful, these behaviors have to be viewed through the lens of human motivation rather than the more static approach of simply recording and responding to the activities themselves.

Management must be willing to allow the analysis to dive deeply into the company’s entire culture and to commit to an applied and consistent system of improvement. There is no simple, quick fix.