Takeaway: Behaviour-based safety can be effective – if it’s part of a comprehensive safety program.
You’ve probably heard of behaviour-based safety (BBS) before. If you have, chances are you know it can be a polarizing topic among safety professionals.
BBS is an approach to safety that involves participants identifying, measuring, and changing their safety-related behaviours. It is founded on the principle that workplace safety can be improved simply by understanding what motivates employees to make unsafe choices and take unnecessary risks.
Of course, BBS can be applied in different ways, some of which are effective and some of which are less so. But whether you’re an advocate for traditional BBS programs or not, most experts agree that as long as there are people in the workplace, some sort of behavioural approach to safety will be required.
Before you start making changes to your safety program, here are eight things you should understand about behaviour-based safety.
Behaviour-based safety programs generally have observers who take note of employee behaviour, often using a standardized checklist listing safe and risky behaviours. This helps identify and correct potentially dangerous actions before they become more problematic. It may even bring to light hazards that workers had not recognized.
As employees become more and more familiar with what they should do to maintain a safe work environment, behavioural shifts can start to occur.
A behaviour-based approach isn’t about external factors or conditions; it’s about human choices and actions. And while identifying safe and unsafe behaviour is part of the approach, managers and workers alike must be willing to look at other human factors, too. For example, considering why we do what we do and how the context affects our conduct.
One common criticism of behaviour-based safety is that it places all the blame and responsibility on the worker, not the employer.
A good BBS program, however, doesn’t blame employees for workplace incidents – it empowers them to take an active role in preventing them.
Yes, this includes everyone from entry-level workers all the way up to the CEO.
To achieve company-wide buy-in for a BBS safety program, employees must believe that management is committed to safety, and management must demonstrate their commitment on a daily basis. This includes addressing employee concerns, creating an open and honest environment, and ensuring that the workplace is properly designed and maintained (for related reading, see Workplace Health and Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility).
Ideally, behavioural observations turn into a dialogue. That dialogue then helps employees recognize and identify risky behaviours, which improves the overall level of safety in the workplace.
The goal is to make the observations feel more like conversations, since some employees get nervous or freeze up when they see someone coming at them with a checklist in hand. In a trusting environment, a dialogue is far less intimidating, results in better sharing of information, and defuses concerns about power dynamics.
Behaviour-based observations provide a wealth of valuable information. When coupled with good data collection and management processes, a BBS program can help you track safety trends and improvements in your workplace.
And if the data gives you good news, share it with the team! If employees see that the BBS approach is working, they’ll continue to buy into it.
Behaviour-based safety isn’t a miracle cure for every workplace safety issue. It’s only one component of a comprehensive safety strategy.
When BBS programs don’t work, it’s often because BBS is being used as a stand-alone approach to employee safety. But BBS is only concerned with the behaviour itself; it doesn’t look at the “why” behind unsafe conduct.
It also isn’t focused on the work environment. Poor work design can be a significant driver of workplace injuries, but a BBS-only approach to safety will overlook a lot of these problems.
Trying to implement an effective BBS program at a company that isn’t ready for one is an exercise in futility – it might even make things worse. A BBS-ready workplace is one that meets the following criteria:
Implementing a BBS program can be a great way to complement already existing initiatives that focus on aspects like physical hazards and workplace design. Done right, it can help you understand where the key organizational risks are and what can be done to mitigate them.
So, take a look at your organization. Is your business BBS ready?
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