Most company visions include the health, safety, and welfare of its employees, contractors, and customers (see The Safety Visionary for advice on drafting a corporate safety mission). Many executive teams also view the mitigation of occupational hazards and risks as central to the success of their organization. While it is estimated that 88 to 96 percent of all workplace injuries are caused by unsafe acts, all occupational injuries and illnesses are, on some level, the result of exposure to hazards in the workplace.

When controlling hazards in the workplace, most organizations tend to focus on ways to reduce or eliminate these occupational hazards by drawing from the hierarchy of hazard control (learn more about it in The Hierarchy of Hazard Control). Unfortunately, that means they often overlook the importance of controlling hazards caused by human factors, such as employee attitudes and perceptions towards safety. Thus, many health and safety experts believe that a holistic approach to improving workplace safety involves striking a balance between eliminating risks and influencing employees to make safer choices. Behavior-based safety is one of the most successful approaches EHS professionals can take to positively shape their employees’ attitudes toward safety.

What Do We Mean by Behavior-based Safety?

Behavior-based Safety is often described as a bottom-up approach with top-down support from safety leaders. What this means is that those implementing this initiative will seek to promote interventions that are employee-focused (bottom-up), as well as provide timely feedback regarding safety-related behavior (top-down).

What Does a Behavior-based Safety Approach Entail?

Behavior-based safety aims to prevent occupational illness and injury by targeting changes in the behavior of employees. Many believe that there is a distinct correlation between the behavior of employees and the causes of incidents and injuries in a workplace setting.

To draw out this correlation, we can think in terms of the ABC model: Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. The Health and Safety Authority explains the ABC model as follows:

Antecedent: A stimulus or event that occurs before a behavior in time. This stimulus or event may result in the behavior. Work examples include goals, policies, training, job aids, and guides. Behavior: Anything that we can see an individual do, or say. Consequence: A stimulus or event that occurs after a behavior in time. This consequence could increase or decrease behavior in the future, depending on its reinforcing or punishing properties. Work examples include feedback, recognition, task completion, goal achievement, and rewards.

Hence, based on the above model, a behavior-based safety approach will entail strategies, such as:

The Benefits of Adopting Behavior-based Safety Approaches in the Workplace

According to the Health and Safety Authority, the initiatives of a behavior-based safety program adopt a proactive focus that:

The Controversy Surrounding Behavior-based Safety

Behavior-based safety continues to be a much debated topic among health and safety experts. Many argue that one of its drawbacks is the fact that it relies heavily on the psychology of learning and motivation. Another pitfall is that there is often a lack of buy-in from management teams when it comes to behavior-based safety initiatives. This may be attributed to the fact that executives must have trust in their employees to adhere to the program principles, such as reporting hazards and near-misses without fear of reprisal (see 3 Reasons Behavior-Based Safety Programs Fail).

Critics of behavior-based safety also characterize this as the "blame-the-worker" approach (see Common Safety Cliches & Why They Aren't Helping for a related discussion). These critics believe that employees will be hesitant to report injuries and near-misses because they fear that they might be blamed for causing them. For this reason, some view the implementation of behavior-based safety programs as counterproductive to risk management. Even labor unions are of the opinion that these programs fuel under-reporting of OSHA recordables, since they are often tied to incentive programs that fail to address the root causes of actual hazards. Lastly, behavior-based safety programs are believed to reduce the required skill levels of health and safety professionals. Companies are being misled into thinking that safety inspections and the use of personal protective equipment are all that’s required for health and safety compliance. The result is that trained and experienced health and safety professionals are being replaced with consultants who have no knowledge of the field.

Behavior-based safety is gaining more interest across industry sectors worldwide and requires both employee involvement and employer commitment. However, while training, safety signs, or toolbox talks can be effective in initiating positive safety attitudes in the beginning, EHS professionals need to ask themselves whether there are also measures in place to ensure employee attitudes towards safety remain positive in the long-term.