Effective or Outdated? Behavior-Based Safety Concepts

24 May 2017

Workplace health and safety depends on people. People are involved 100 percent of the time when work happens – including when work goes well and when things go poorly. It’s fitting that people are a focus in all successful health and safety programs.

People-focused strategies include emphasis on leading indicators (predicated by the actions of people), accountability, observation and coaching with a bias toward positive recognition as a path to performance improvement. Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) is a people-based approach that focuses on identifying, measuring, and making sense of the reasons for behaviors that influence safety performance.

Environment and Experience Workers act as they do (for better or for worse) because of their environment and experiences. With this fact in mind, good investigators move beyond worker behavior as the sole cause of incidents.As explained in UL’s training course Safety & You, workers tend to follow how other people behave and think. For example, people don’t usually come to work just whenever they want to; they come at the time they are expected to be there. They don’t dress however they feel; they tend to dress in something that fits in with what others are wearing. At-risk behavior follows this same practice.

Workers tend to behave as others do, and they behave in ways that are allowed by their employer, manager, and coworkers. So, when we talk about workplace conditions that encourage at-risk behavior, it often is within the reach of the manager to change workplace conditions and encourage safe performance. Take, for example, workers who are not using their personal protective equipment (PPE). If it fits awkwardly or is not maintained, chances are workers won’t use this equipment for their safety. It’s the manager’s job to help identify why the PPE is not being used and to work to remove these barriers.

If the equipment doesn’t fit right, the company needs to acquire better-fitting equipment.Another way workplace conditions encourage at-risk behavior is through workload pressures such as tight schedules and excessive physical demands. Sometimes these pressures are explicit, but they can also be implied. For example, maybe managers don’t TELL workers to take safety shortcuts, but if the schedule is not reasonable or production quotas are out of line, workers may try to save time by shortchanging safety. They may conclude that schedules or numbers are more important than anything else, including safety. Another reason workers take risks is that they are unaware that their behavior is risky in the first place. They may never have been trained on the “safe” way – or they may have received training, but not retained the knowledge. There might be no reminders about safe practices. Managers and coworkers can be the source of these reminders by their actions and coaching.The third reason workers take risks is due to basic human nature. Naturally, rewards and punishments favor at-risk behavior. That’s because doing something the risky way is often faster, more convenient, and more comfortable. Even at-risk behavior can have positive outcomes like recognition by supervisors and coworkers that don’t understand—or don’t care—about the shortcuts taken.

Imagine you’re on your way home and you’re approaching a stoplight near your house. You know that this light takes a really long time to turn green – you’re late, and you’d really like to be home. In the distance, the light turns yellow. What do you do? Push the accelerator a little harder or put on your brakes? Some people do the at-risk behavior of zipping through the light and almost always, nothing bad happens. The immediate reward is beating the light and getting home quicker. Isn’t it faster to move that heavy load yourself without taking the time to get someone to help you? Isn’t it more convenient to use the closest tool at hand, even if it isn’t exactly the right tool for the job? Isn’t it more comfortable working without those safety glasses or earplugs than with them? Of course it is.

On the other hand, we have to admit that the chances of an injury resulting from any single at-risk behavior – moving something heavy without help just this one time, using the wrong tool just this one time, working without eye or hearing protection just this one time – may be very low. That’s why people take these shortcuts. They think they can get away with it and most of the time they’re right! 

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