Seven important things to know
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Behavior-based safety (BBS) has been around for more than 30 years and is one of the most trusted employee-driven safety systems out there. Still, there are many misunderstandings about this tool and how best to use it. The points below draw on our experience implementing BBS systems at more than 3,500 locations around the world.
1. What Behavior-Based Safety Is (And Isn't)
Behavior-based safety (BBS) developed as a way to manage exposure at the working interface: the place where what people do (behavior) interacts with conditions and management systems. Safety excellence is directly related to how effective the organization is at controlling exposure to hazards in the working interface. Studies of this approach have shown links between BBS initiatives and improvements in everything from culture to quality. What's most interesting (and perhaps most important) is that this approach has taught us lessons that apply to safety generally and can be invaluable to any facility interested in developing a comprehensive approach.
2. All Behaviors Have a Context
Safety-related behaviors do not occur in a vacuum; they are often a reflection of a complex relationship between an organization's systems, culture, leadership, and the employee. One study of at-risk behavior across five sites illustrates this principle. Of 13,000 at-risk interactions logged over a two-year period, only 17% occurred due to "personal choice," what we call enabled behavior. The overwhelming majority – 83% – were performed because the safe work was either difficult to do (requiring significant effort) or impossible (not within the employee's control).
3. No One System is Enough to Drive Results
Safety systems, though essential, are not sufficient for excellence. Conducting observations is dependent on how observations are seen in the organization, (is giving feedback a part of how we do things here, or is it okay to opt out?). Hazard removal is as good as the infrastructure that supports it (is it easy or hard to get this equipment replaced?) The longevity of training depends on alignment with organizational priorities and practices (does my supervisor support this new way of doing things or will I meet resistance?) To be effective, safety systems must be in alignment with, and supported by, other elements of the organization.
4. Culture Predicts Outcomes
One of the strongest predictors of the success of a behavior-based safety initiative is the quality of the organizational culture where it is implemented. High-performers (those sites that achieve results quickly and sustain it over time) tend to show qualities such as high trust, good communication, management credibility, and organizational value for safety. Low-performers (those sites that struggle to get results) show the opposite. These characteristics also correlate to safety results themselves; a recent study showed that companies with higher culture scores had lower injury rates while companies with lower culture scores had higher injury rates.
5. Leaders Drive Results
Creating the kind of culture where safety is a driving value (or isn't), is something done by leaders through their day-to-day actions. In the most effective safety leaders, certain behaviors have been seen to recur, including vision, credibility, action-orientation, collaboration, communication, recognition and feedback, and accountability. Our experience has shown that these characteristics can be developed among leaders wishing to become more effective safety leaders, and that when they do, organizations realize significantly greater gains. A recent study shows that companies that develop leaders alongside their behavior-based safety implementations show a substantially higher first-year improvement in injury rates (40%) over companies implementing BBS alone (25%).
6. Behavior-Based Safety is Helping Reduce Fatalities
Behavior-based safety is a significant—and underused tool—in the prevention of serious injuries and fatalities (SIF). Employees trained as observers are uniquely positioned to identify changes in exposure and provide leaders with data to save lives. Organizations can leverage employee expertise to focus on key areas of the work being done, expand critical behavior inventories, and use collected information to assess exposures with SIF potential. When people know what to look for, they can target precursors to SIFs and take the necessary steps to prevent an incident before it can become a tragedy.
7. Good Data and is Critical for Actionable Analysis
Getting the most out of your BBS system means collecting data that drives safety action and strategy. Data that is not actionable is not useful. It's important to dig past the numbers and apply critical analysis to understand what the data is really saying. Examine on-the-ground facts and other factors that contribute to trends. Applying a broad set of metrics provides a complete picture of risks and performance. Good use of safety analytics helps organizations: detect significant factors and patterns contributing to incidents, identify high-exposure subgroups to target intervention strategies, understand high-severity potential events, easily communicate findings to stakeholders, and improve the data collection and management process.
Behavior-based safety is a performance improvement engine that can drive safety and the organization's overall functioning. It is a way to advance leadership capabilities, leverage frontline knowledge, and engage people in matters that concern them the most. The organization as a whole lives and dies on the behavior of its people; BBS can contribute to the improvement of overall performance. The principles that make BBS work, and that make it relevant, are critical to everything organizations do. But how effective the system is depends on its implementation and the leadership that guides it. BBS done right changes the way the organization operates.
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