Behavior-Based Safety Can Improve Safety Programs

Grainne A. Matthews, Ph.D. and Terry McSween, Ph.D.

Our problem in achieving further improvements in safety stems from our success. Most industries have good safety records as a result of decades of improvements in working conditions, regulations, and practices. Strictly based on chance, the average employee can work their entire life without experiencing a serious injury. This high level of safety creates a sense of complacency among both employees and management. Employees can often shortcut safety procedures and not get hurt. Management can attend to productivity and other issues while paying little attention to employees’ safe work habits. The probability of injury is often too low to maintain compliance with safety procedures, especially those that make the job more uncomfortable or less convenient.

The most frequent approach taken by companies who are trying to increase compliance is a combination of reminders and discipline. However, neither is effective in the long run and this approach, based on catching people breaking the rules, has many negative side effects. Research has demonstrated that employers who give employees and managers a method to exercise their natural concern for safety reap many rewards: Fewer incidents and injuries, reduced costs, and a more positive and productive workplace where managers can focus on improvement rather than policing employees. A Behavioral Safety process is the only method proven to improve safe practices through a positive, employee driven, and continuously improving process. A behavioral process also allows companies to harness the power of company and individual values for safety. This creates a culture where managers and employees work safely for the right reasons rather than one where people simply follow procedures to avoid punishment.

The Problem

Research suggests that between 86% and 96% of today’s incidents result from unsafe behavior rather than unsafe conditions. Yet, many companies still fail to directly address employee and management behavior in their safety programs. A large body of research outlines methods for changing the behavior of employees and management. The Behavioral Safety process incorporates the most cost effective and efficient elements of this technology and has greatly reduced the frequency and severity of incidents in many companies. This article presents the kind of results that you can achieve through such a process, the critical components of the process, and an overview of a strategy for implementing a behavioral approach within your organization's existing safety efforts.

The Solution

Experience has shown that most companies can expect a 30% reduction in serious incidents within the first year of successful implementation. For example, using the behavioral approach, a major U.S. drilling company reduced its lost time incident rate by 48%. This company moved from average for its industry to one of the top five safety performers (Figure 1).

 A solids-handling chemical company went from three or four recordable injuries per year to no recordables for more than 16 months after implementation of a behavioral process (see Figure 2).

The Critical Elements

What is the process that produces these dramatic effects? Experimental studies show that the necessary and sufficient elements of a successful and long lasting process are frequent, objective, and positive feedback on safe performance. In addition, experience has shown that databased problem solving by involved employees and an active and clear role for management help to create employee and management support for a successful and positive process.

The Behavioral Safety process accomplishes these functions using:

  • Regular observation of safe behavior on the job
  • Feedback and discussion based on the observation data
  • Improvement goals and action plans driven by this data
  • Recognition for improvement and participation
  • Management and employee teams

These elements appear so simple that many people underestimate the difficulty involved in creating a Behavioral Safety system. Each of these critical elements can be accomplished in a variety of ways, each of which has advantages and disadvantages for a particular company. The selection of a strategy, as well as the timing and manner of implementation, must be done in the context of the culture of the organization.

These elements combine to provide a proven process for systematically managing safety on the job in a way that minimizes the risk of incidents and injuries, ensures a high degree of procedural compliance, and maintains that level of consistency over extended periods. Consistency of safe behavior is the critical outcome of a successful safety management process. The odds of a serious incident or injury are the same every time an employee rolls the dice. The number of risks taken by employees must be systematically reduced to affect the rate and severity of incidents.


Safety Assessment

Before initiating a Behavioral Safety process, you first need to assess your organization's current safety efforts. This assessment has four objectives: First, it ensures that you have an accurate understanding of your organization's current efforts. Building upon the strengths and taking advantage of the opportunities of your current programs is both cost effective and creates support for your proposal. Second, it enables you to develop a realistic preliminary design for the Behavioral Safety process, which is the starting point for the team process described in the next section. Third, by involving key representatives of all areas of the company via individual interviews and focus groups, you enlist their support and involvement in the process. Finally, by presenting the assessment results and preliminary design to management, you have an opportunity to get their support for the critical elements necessary for the long-term success of your safety process. Table 1 summarizes the outcomes of the assessment.

  Assessment Outcome
1  Picture of Current Safety Culture
 Preliminary Design and Team Members for Process 
 Beginning of Employee Support and Involvement 
 Initial Management Understanding and Commitment 

 Table 1. Assessment Outcomes

Team Process

During implementation, one of your goals is to ensure that you have broad organizational ownership for the enhancements you are recommending. The only way to create such ownership is by involving others in the design and implementation process. Thus, as you conduct your assessment, you plan a potential team structure to finalize and initiate the implementation plans (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Team Structure for Implementing Behavioral Safety Process

This team structure includes two levels, one to provide management review and support, and another to develop detailed implementation plans based on the assessment. The Management Team provides the resources necessary for implementation and, eventually, for action plans based on the data. The Design Team develops the plan and implements the Behavioral Safety process. Once implementation has begun, this team may move into an advisory role while Area Safety Teams manage the process. During the assessment, you identify a preliminary list of participants for these teams.

The Design Team generally includes personnel who will ultimately conduct the coaching. Thus, if your initial plan is for supervisors to conduct coaching, then supervisors are represented on the Design Team. Ideal Design Team members represent the areas of the company where Behavioral Safety is to be implemented so that they bring expertise to the team and credibility to the ultimate process. Design Team members with a history of commitment to safety also bolster credibility of the final product. Table 2 summarizes the ideal qualities of the team of employees who create your Behavioral Safety process.

 Characteristics of Design Team Members
1 Likely to conduct observations and coaching
2 Representative of target areas 
Trusted and respected by employees 
History of actions evidencing commitments to safety 

Table 2. Characteristics of Design Team Members

Your assessment report is preliminary design document for implementation. The recommendations you make provide a starting point for the Design Team. On studying the recommendations, the Design Team decides whether to support, change, or discard them. Most often, the Design Team revises the initial recommendations based on their experience and knowledge of the organization. They then develop the additional procedural details required for implementation.

Behavioral Safety Process

Generally, your design and implementation efforts follow a five-step process (Table 3). For simplicity, these steps are presented in sequence. In practice, some of the steps may occur concurrently.

Step Activity
1 Design the Behavioral Safety Process
2  Train coaches and teams
Kick off the process 
Extend the feedback and involvement process 
Enhance recognition and celebration 

Table 3. Creating a Behavioral Safety Process

Step 1. Design the Behavioral Safety process

The critical element of the Behavioral Safety process is a coaching procedure built around an observation checklist. The checklist ensures that all of the critical safety items are considered in the coaching session and helps the coaches to be objective, specific, and positive in discussing observations with the observed employees. The steps in the implementation of the coaching procedure are outlined in the Table 4.

Step Activity
1 Pinpoint safe practices
2  Draft and revise the observation checklist(s)
Develop the coaching procedure(s)
Trial run the checklist(s) and procedure(s)
Conduct a Management Team review

Table 4. Creating the Coaching Procedure

Task 1. Pinpoint target safety practices

Deciding which employee behaviors to include on the checklist is a balancing act between including all those practices essential to creating a safe workplace and creating a checklist that is simple and easy to use. There are a variety of methods for selecting checklist items, including analyzing records for those behaviors that might have prevented an incident, interviewing subject matter experts, and reviewing relevant regulations.

Those practices you include on the checklist must be described in such a way as to allow coaches to reliably record their observations. Each item must be detailed enough to allow independent observers to agree on how to record their observations. Checklists that are written in an objective and positive manner also facilitate successful coaching. This is the process of pinpointing.

Task 2. Draft and revise the observation checklists

The checklists can have a variety of formats. The goal is to develop a checklist format that is reliable and easy to use. Checklists may allow the observer to score each pinpointed practice as either safe or unsafe. Other formats may involve a frequency count of safe or unsafe practices, a rating scale, or some combination of these.

Task 3. Develop the coaching procedure

Several of the critical questions your Design Team must consider in developing the coaching procedure are:

  • Who will conduct the coaching?
  • Will coaching be voluntary or a job requirement?
  • What training will these coaches need?
  • How often will coaching be conducted?

Who Will Conduct the Coaching?

In developing the coaching procedure, the first question to address is who will conduct the observations and coaching. Recent research suggest that the most effective behavioral safety processes target involvement of all employees in conducting observations. Table 5 outlines some of the other options and considerations for who should be involved in conducting observations. If your team has decided that observations and coaching is, at least initially, a management responsibility, then you need decide which levels of management will participate. If you have elected to create employee coaches, you need to consider whether all or some employees will assume this role. Another issue is whether observations and coaching is a voluntary role or a requirement of all designated employees. The design team usually considers at least three options:

  • Train all employees to be Behavioral Safety coaches
  • Assign observations and coaching to specific positions
  • Confine observations and coaching to Area Safety Team members

In the latter situation, Area Safety Team members may initially conduct the observations, then rotate other employees onto the team, or gradually involve all employees in the observations and coaching process.

Table 5. Considerations for Deciding Who Will Conduct Observations and coaching

How often will observations and coaching be conducted?

The frequency of observations and coaching is important. Table 6 outlines some of the issues to consider. The risk associated with your business determines whether it needs to be daily, weekly or monthly. If you are in a high-risk business, then you will probably conduct daily observations and coaching. Most manufacturing organizations will want to conduct at least weekly observations and coaching. Daily or weekly observations and coaching is the best way to support lasting behavior change. Receiving observations and coaching every two weeks is the minimum frequency that will produce any change. Thus, the number of target employees also determines how often observations and coaching sessions should occur. You may also have a different frequency for different areas or levels of employee. You might require supervisors to conduct weekly observations and coaching in their areas, while upper level managers and staff conduct monthly observations throughout the facility.

If observations are voluntary, then frequency becomes less predictable. Employees can conduct as many or as few sessions as they choose. In this case, encouraging participation in the observation process becomes a much more critical issue. Recognition and celebration issues are addressed below.

If Employees Are Then Coach Considerations

Moderate to high riskof an injury or incident

Daily or weekly

Frequent observations increase the need to involve all employees as coaches

As area improves safety record, may decrease frequency

Low to moderate risk of an injury or incident

Weekly or monthly

Good frequency for observations by managers and supervisors

Most empirical studies used weekly observations and feedback

Very low risk of an injury or incident (e.g. office workers

Periodic, if at all

May use observations and coaching as follow-up on specific training

May be appropriate as part of ergonomic intervention 

Table 6. Considerations for Deciding Appropriate Observations Frequency

Task 4. Trial run the checklist and the procedure

Designing a valid, reliable, and above all practical, checklist and coaching procedure requires taking the drafts out of the conference room and into the work place. Design Team members test the draft checklists in their areas and their experience helps to create a viable and useful data collection and coaching procedure. Ideally, the entire coaching session takes no more than thirty minutes.

Task 5. Conduct a Management Team review

Now that your Behavioral Safety process has been designed, you need your Management Team’s support for implementation. Scheduling a presentation by the Design Team to the Management Team accomplishes two objectives. Not only will you have the opportunity to obtain management commitment and support but this demonstration of the culmination of their work often produces a greater sense of ownership and commitment in the Design Team members, too. Table 7 illustrates a sample agenda for such a meeting. Each team member may present one item on the agenda. Consider inviting all interested managers to this presentation, not only those involved in the identified Management Team. The more understanding for the process you generate, the more support you are likely to receive.

Management Presentation Agenda

Mission Statement and Values for Process

Results of Incident Record Analysis

Proposed Process 

  • Proposed Observation Checklis & Process
  • Proposed Checklist Items and Definitions
  • Proposed Training and Kick Off Plans
  • Proposed Recognition and Celebration Plans
  • Proposed Feedback and Tracking
  • Proposed Management Policy Statement

      Request management input and approval 

Table 7. Sample Management Presentation Agenda

Step 2. Train coaches and teams

As you consider implementation of the coaching process, you will need to consider the existing skills and training needs of the identified coaches. For the Behavioral Safety process to be successful, coaches may need training in at least three areas:

  • Observation skills
    • Use of the checklist
    • The observation procedure
  • Observation-based Coaching skills
    • Providing positive feedback
    • Discussing observed safety concerns
    • Problem-solving safety concerns
  • Job-related skills identified on the safety checklist

Coaches also benefit from an understanding of the rationale or basic theory underlying the Behavioral Safety process, including the coaching procedure and the action planning based on the observation data. They will often provide better support when they understand the reasons for the behavioral approach.

In addition to identifying the training needed to make implementation successful, the Design Team decides on the most effective way to deliver training. You will want to plan a training process that balances effectiveness with cost and impact on the workplace. The options for training include:

  • Individual coaching (describe, demonstrate, observe, and provide feedback)
  • Mentoring of new coaches by experienced and successful coaches
  • Seminars or workshops

Consider individual coaching and mentoring for training new coaches as a less disruptive process than providing workshops or seminars. On the other hand, providing an understanding of the rationale for the Behavioral Safety process might be done most effectively in larger groups. Allowing employees to make videos or slides of near-miss incidents or past incident situations provides an effective training tool that creates a high level of involvement. This training tool is especially useful for demonstrating and practicing coaching skills. Some critical coaching skills in the Values-Based Safety® process are outlined in Table 8.

For Safe Practices

For Concerns

Describe the observed practice in objective terms
Describe the protective effect of the practice Describe the potentially harmful effect of the practice 
Praise or thank the employee for being safe Express personal concern for the employee 
  Discuss an alternative practice 
 Listen to the employee's perspective 
 Use problem-solving skills to improve safety of situation, if appropriate 

Table 8. Coaching Skills for Safe Practices and for Concerns

Step 3. Kickoff the process

Kickoff meetings are often used to introduce the process when coaching will begin before everyone has completed training. Schedule a series of meetings with small groups of employees to explain the Behavioral Safety process. Generally, covering all areas and shifts this way takes several meetings. Small groups of eight to ten people are ideal as they provide employees with a better opportunity for discussion and questions than do larger groups. The agenda looks very much like the previous presentation to management. In either case, the Design Team may participate in all presentations, or they can split the responsibility.

You may also want to plan a role for management in your kick-off meetings. For example, a representative of upper management or the area manager might comment on management's support for the new safety improvement efforts.

Step 4. Extend the feedback and involvement process

Your teams will arrange to post graphs showing the observation data in work areas and locations where employees are likely to see them. A good practice is to establish a bulletin board for safety in each area. You can then readily display observation forms, safety graphs, and other safety-related information.

Graphs must be simple and easy to understand. Consider two graphs for each area: a Pareto chart showing the most frequently recorded concerns, and a line graph showing the percentage of employees conducting observations and coaching. Data must be specific enough to be useful to the audience; for example, you may want separate graphs for each shift.

Initially, depending on the sophistication of your work force, asking Area Safety Team members to update the graphs manually is preferable to generating them by a computer or having professional or clerical staff producing the graphs. Requiring the Team members to maintain the feedback graphs ensures that they understand the data being presented. The feedback is also available without the delay that often results from a computerized process. Finally, the team members will develop a greater sense of ownership for the results than if other personnel were summarizing and graphing the data.

However, using a computerized database or spreadsheet does have some advantages. It allows you to easily generate summary reports for distribution, which is particularly important in a large organization for tracking the percent of scheduled coaching sessions conducted. Computers can easily generate a variety of reports on the process for review in management meetings.

To get the maximum benefit from Behavioral Safety, managers and employees must review and respond to the observation data. The best way to ensure that people look at the data is to build it into existing meetings. Ideally, the graphs and observation checklists are both reviewed as one of the first agenda items in employee safety meetings. This prompts problem solving discussions and action planning. Usually additional information is forthcoming in these employee meetings that guides the Area Safety Teams and the Steering Committee in planning systems changes, environment and equipment upgrades, and other safety improvements, such as training.

Managers also review data; however, they focus on improving the new process, not the results of the process. Thus, managers attend to information about the number of employees trained, number of employees involved as coaches, frequency of coaching sessions, use of the data in area safety meetings, Steering Committee meetings, etc. If managers attempt to influence the results instead of the process, they may damage the integrity of the system. Pressure from management to show improved safety will eventually bias the observation process and destroy the value of the data. This does not suggest that managers and supervisors do not continue to pay attention to safety on the job. The observation data is a measure of the extent to which employees work safely. Managers and supervisors must provide daily feedback to employees when they observe both safe and unsafe behavior. This evidence of commitment to safety is essential to the success of any safety process. However, managers emphasize safety on the job and maintaining scheduled coaching, not the “percent safe” resulting from the observations.

Once you have your observation process up and running you will usually need to expand employee involvement. If you have initially established the coaching process as a management or Steering Committee responsibility, begin to involve employees after three months or so. Their participation may begin through joint coaching conducted alongside the original coaches or as additional or substitute coaches. Just make sure that you provide an adequate training and orientation process for new coaches, as described in the previous section.

Step 5. Enhance recognition and celebration

No process will last without maintaining the motivation of those involved. Your Behavioral Safety process has two important components that need support. The first is the improvements in safety performance evident in observations. The second is employee participation - as coaches, and as members of Area Safety Team and the Steering Committee. Individuals and teams can be recognized in a variety of ways. The most important element of this recognition is that it be meaningful to the recipient. Sincere personal acknowledgements are often one of the most powerful forms of reinforcement. The more frequently they occur, the more powerful their effect. Arranging for someone from management or recognizing an employee in front of their peers can make the recognition more meaningful for some employees. Group activities such as parties, meals, trips, and games are also good ways to provide reinforcement. Another effective method of reinforcing both groups and individuals for their accomplishment is to have them describe what they did to achieve it.

Symbolic awards may be given during these celebratory events. The awards represent the accomplishment, its significance, and the recognition of others. They are not meant to financially reward the employees for working safely or for participating in the process. The best awards provide a lasting visual memory of the celebration and often provoke later inquiries from others as to their significance. Examples are trophies, plaques, and other decorative items or badges, pins, shirts, and other clothing items. The Behavioral Safety recognition process provides a way of celebrating your successes and saying thanks to those employees who work safely and those that make special contributions.

Regardless of the kind of recognition and celebration system you design, it will require an internal marketing campaign to inform and remind employees. Consider posters, announcements, newsletters, competitions, and other methods of promoting and communicating the goals and the celebrations.

Problems with Traditional Safety Incentive Programs

Traditional safety incentive programs often pay off people who take chances or encourage employees to not report incidents accurately. Too many people simply roll the dice. The chance of injury is usually so low that they will not get hurt although they take chances. In an award program based on going a fixed time without an incident or injury, they will get the same award as other employees that always comply with safety procedures. In addition, if the award is significant, particularly if the award is significant to a group of employees, such programs may discourage honest reporting of minor incidents and injuries.

Management’s Role in Behavioral Safety

Management has to have a very clearly defined role to ensure the survival of a Behavioral Safety process. Managers have several critical responsibilities to ensure the success of the safety improvement effort:

  • Participate in Kick-Off, training, and in recognition and celebration events
  • Ensure that there are no barriers to coaching sessions in their area
  • Participate as coaches and encourage others to do so
  • Actively contribute in Steering Committee and Management Team meetings

Just as important as what managers do do, is what they do not do. Managers do not respond to the observation data. The observation data are a tool for employees to use in safety meetings and for Area Safety Teams to use in planning improvements to the safety management system. Pressure on the data will bias reporting and destroy the integrity of the process. If managers focus on low “percent safe” scores, coaches will ensure that the scores look good. The observation process then becomes a “numbers game,” which defeats its purpose.

Obtaining the public commitment of all members of management to these responsibilities is a good way to get the Behavioral Safety process off to a good start. The Design Team creates a recognition and celebration process for managers, too. Managers who support the process by following through on these commitments have also taken on additional responsibilities and expended additional effort. Their involvement is so critical to success that working to continue it through recognition is an important role for the Steering Committee. Ass with employees, reinforcement for management is most effective when it is sincere, personal, and meaningful to the recipient.


Here are some final suggestions to improve your chances of success.

1. Do not use a cookbook approach

This article provides a set of guidelines, but your success depends on your ability to plan the application of these principles in the context of your organization's culture. This suggestion pertains to the approach described in this article as well as to comparable approaches from various consulting organizations. Do not simply buy a package. Make sure you use the critical elements to develop a system that meets the needs of your organization. On the other hand, do not be too quick to discard critical elements just because they are difficult to implement or maintain in your organization.

2. Plan and clearly define management's role

The Behavioral Safety process requires time and a great deal of effort. It will require active support from all levels of management. Pay special attention to the suggestions for involving management and defining management's role in the process. Management's role will be the critical factor in both the long-term success of your observation process as well as the day-to-day elements of your safety improvement process.

3. Maximize participation in the final design

The only way to create ownership is through meaningful involvement in the design process. This process requires a high level of involvement and has several options for ways to involve people. Do not make the mistake of designing a safety process in a vacuum and then trying to implement it by mandate. Involve people in the design at every stage. Then have those who assist with the design take it back to their work areas and get input and suggestions from their colleagues.

4. Create a different checklist for each area

The research studies upon which Behavioral Safety is based all used checklists of specific safe behaviors that were job- and area-specific. Unless you are in a small facility, do not try to develop a generic checklist that works for all areas. Maintenance has different safety requirements than a laboratory, for example, and their checklists will look different. To maximize the value of the checklists, they need to be explicit enough to address the specific safe practices of different job functions.

5. Avoid bureaucracy around the data

The value of this process is in getting everyone to pay attention to on-the-job safety, not in creating a paper storm. Build informal systems of accountability based on the observable parts of the system. Do not create an elaborate system of paper reports. Do pay attention to the safety process during informal contact with individuals in the work areas and during formal meetings at each level of the organization.

6. Use classroom training only when needed

Place emphasis on designing a training process that satisfies your needs, not putting all employees through coach training. Provide enough training to create the understanding that people need to support the process. Also, do not think of training as strictly a classroom process. When training coaches, for example, a mentoring process is often more effective. Use training only when it is appropriate, and select an appropriate process for delivering the training that's needed.

7. Persevere. Do not quit - ever!

False starts characterize the implementation of any significant new process. Implementation is often two steps forward and one step back. Successful processes are characterized by continuous improvement. Learn from each of your mistakes so that you can do it better the next time. Just keep fine-tuning your process until you achieve zero incidents. Then strive to maintain that level of safety excellence.

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