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Behavior-Based Safety Participation: Mandatory or Voluntary?

By Tarek Abousaleh

When deciding on a behavior-based safety (BBS) process, it is important to take into account more than simply whether there is a need for behavior change in order to reduce incidents and injuries. In addition to recognizing the need for members of the organization to join together in taking responsibility for reducing incidents, an analysis of the rules and contingencies of the workplace should be completed.

This analysis, when done correctly, helps us fully understand why employees are engaging in injury causing behaviors in the workplace. Only after this analysis, can the practitioner truly understand how to drive behavior change in the current work environment. 

One of the tenets of behavior-based safety processes has been the voluntary nature of their implementations. This voluntary nature refers to the idea that once employees have been taught why and trained how to be involved in the observation and feedback process (the process during which one employee observes the safety performance of a peer and delivers specific feedback to that peer to reinforce any safe behaviors observed), they can choose whether or not to participate in conducting BBS observations. They are also told that they will not suffer any negative consequences for their choice not to participate. The rationale behind this approach is that for a data-driven process to be successful the data needs to be valid and accurate. If a process calls for mandatory involvement, focus tends to be placed solely on the completion of observations, often disregarding the need to ensure employees are conducting quality observations. 

While following this tenet has served the field well to encourage employees to get involved in a BBS process, there may be other methods that may work just as well or better. The viewpoint here is not that a voluntary process has erroneously become the first method of choice, but that not enough has been done to investigate other means of making a behavior-based safety process sustainable within an organization. A BBS process that is mandatory in nature for the employees may have unforeseen advantages as well as the more well-known disadvantages. The advantages may make mandatory participation worth consideration in certain situations and within certain work cultures.

As part of the reassessment of a BBS process implemented at a door manufacturing facility located in a Midwestern US state, participation was measured for both employees and leadership. A member of the leadership group was characterized by the organization as someone having a supervisory role either on the facility floor or in an administrative role. It was found that over a three-year period the correlation found between employee and leadership participation was -0.86. This high negative correlation indicates that leadership did not “lead the way” in promoting involvement in the process. An analysis of this data shows that leadership began the first year with participation between 75 and 100 percent and held steady over the next two years, with a slight drop occasionally towards the 70 percent mark. Conversely, employee participation during the first year varied between 40 and 80 percent. During the second year this number dropped to between 40 and 60 percent and then rose quickly and held steady between 90 and 100 percent during the end of the second year and throughout the rest of the time included in the analysis. These data along with the information gathered during interviews with employees at various levels of the organization indicate that the sharp increase in participation was due to a change from an explicitly voluntary process to a process that was called voluntary but was implemented daily as a mandatory one. The issue with this change is that while the change did increase participation, it came at the expense of two vital components of a successful and sustainable BBS process—the first being quality. While the number of observations may have skyrocketed due to required employee involvement, the number of observations that were done correctly and with intent to increase safe behavior suffered. The second (and arguably the most important loss for the process) was the buy-in of the employees. Witnessing the process become mostly mandatory after having been promised a BBS process of a voluntary nature left many of the interviewed employees bitter about continuing with it in the future. This drawback not only hurt the success of the BBS process itself, but also damaged the credibility of leadership in any future endeavors they may pursue for the organization. 

A facility located in Mexico owned by the same organization (also manufacturing doors) was analyzed for employee and leadership participation in its own BBS process. This facility’s BBS process was mandatory in nature from its inception and both leadership and employees were asked to complete a certain number of observations per month. The correlation between employees and leadership for the three years of data analyzed was 0.98. The extremely high positive correlation suggests that the rules set in place from the design phase helped to ensure behavior maintained over the entire period observed.  In addition, the data show that after an initial increase and then decrease during the first year, participation jumped to between 80 and 100 percent for the remainder of the time analyzed. 

The fact that a mandatory process was chosen for this facility meant that while employees may not have enjoyed having more to do and one more item to adhere to in their job description, they may also have been able to adapt to it as “just a part of the job here.” This, in time, would transform into part of the work culture and would sustain just as clocking in or taking a lunch break have become. In addition, it is possible that the mandatory process may have been more successful due to the fact that the training for conducting observations took place close to the time when employees and leaders first received training on the BBS process. This is an advantage for a mandatory method because buy-in may be highest during the immediate period after employees have been through the workshops explaining why a BBS process can help save their lives. Lastly, when a process is mandatory, the behavior is guaranteed to occur and to occur sooner than if the process is voluntary. This means that the opportunity to reinforce the behavior is also apt to be more quickly and more frequently available. Thus, a mandatory BBS process, introduced during the design phase, may provide a means by which leadership may reinforce desired safe behaviors more frequently and sooner, leading to a quicker drop in incidents and injuries.

While ensuring that a behavior-based safety process remains during implementation as it was designed, with no mixed messages, it is equally important to design a BBS process from the onset so that the greatest good can be attained. In this case the greatest good being—whether participation is voluntary or mandatory—a sustainable and progressive process that enables the organization to ensure its workforce leaves its facilities in the same health as they arrived.