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Can You Design a Behavioral Safety Process in Six Days? Yes!

When Bob Foxworthy, a behavioral consultant with Quality Safety Edge (QSE), received a year-end request to develop a fully operational behavior-based safety (BBS) process within six days, the “Mission Impossible” theme song began playing in his head. The request came from ICL Performance Products’ phosphate plant in Lawrence, Kansas. The plant had once successfully operated a behavior-based safety process that had gone by the wayside over a decade ago. Now, the facility’s safety team wanted to begin anew with a limited budget, a limited time frame, and an unlimited determination to make it happen.

“I said, ‘I think I can help you. This is very challenging; therefore, it’s exciting,’” Foxworthy recounts. “We agreed that this would have to be very organic, a highly versatile implementation, very collaborative, extremely creative, and not wasting a step.”

Foxworthy agreed to take on the challenge with two provisions: 1) the plant had selected a safety steering committee with the capability and willingness to make a difference, and 2) he wouldn’t have to spend time winning over the leadership team. “Done and done!” he was told. The goal was set: within six days the safety steering committee would be prepared to propose the complete implementation of the new BBS system to management.

Six Days and Counting

The first two days while conducting an onsite assessment, Foxworthy expressed some honest concerns about the expedited schedule, but the safety team wasn’t deterred. “We were saying, ‘We can do it!’ because we knew it was absolutely necessary for us to do to reach our safety goals and get the employee involvement we needed,” explains Troy Sorensen, ICL’s environmental, health, safety and training manager. Voluntary involvement wasn’t an element of the plant’s most recent safety approach, one based on mandatory self-observation and report, with discipline for lack of participation. In short, it was not a popular system. “I think it is absolutely critical that this is an employee-run process,” says Sorensen.

But why the return to a behavior-based safety initiative? “Some of the safety processes that we observed were really focused more on workplace conditions,” explains Josh Henery, safety steering committee member and safety facilitator. “But we were having a lot of minor accidents that we thought were connected to behavior, and that’s what we wanted to address.”

During the two-day site assessment of the ICL plant, Foxworthy met with the BBS steering team, union leadership (100 of the 160 plant employees are union members), and the plant staff. “Bob was a perfect fit for us. It wasn’t ‘This is what you have to do!’ He listened to what the guys said they wanted to do and what they wanted to see and worked with us to put that into place. We thought that was huge,” says Sorensen.

The customized process resulted from a real give-and-take conversation between Foxworthy and the safety steering team members. Importantly, the carefully chosen team members—primarily operators and mechanics—reflect the real demographic and knowledge base of the plant. Steering team members include employees who have been at the plant for many years and therefore know its history with other safety initiatives, as well as the newer guard bringing their own insights to the table. Several of the team members had been around years ago when the first BBS program was in place. Others had visited a sister plant to get a firsthand feel for what a working BBS system looks like. This informed background gave everyone a sound base for determining the elements that they wanted in their own plant’s BBS process.

Before the end of the second day, the group, with Foxworthy’s assistance, had created and refined 21 points (outlining the type of implementation they envisioned for their workplace) for the upcoming management presentation. At the core of the 21 points was the mandate that every employee would be trained in the skill of behavioral safety observations and that making those observations would be purely voluntarily. “It’s a no-name, no-blame process. There is no disciplinary element. We don’t even know who the person being observed is and we don’t want to know,” says Sorensen. “We’re focused on the behaviors.”

The Final Four

Before he left to iron out some details for the next steps, Foxworthy told the group, “You need a data management system.” The system would track and analyze the data from behavioral observations to highlight any behaviors that should be targeted for improvement. When he returned, an access database attained from another ICL plant was already in place, sporting the new BBS process logo. (Designed by Tom Merseman,  a safety steering committee member, the BBS logo and name features a well-known entity to Kansas residents, a tornado named TWISTER—an acronym for “Together We Improve Safety Through Evaluating Risk.”)

Safety steering committee member Tom Merseman designed the TWISTER logo for ICL’s BBS process, an acronym meaning “Together We Improve Safety Through Evaluating Risk.”

“It’s a homegrown access database and it’s very effective,” says Foxworthy. All was in order; it was time for the next step: training the safety team members how to teach the workforce to make behavioral safety observations and provide constructive feedback. “At that point, the safety committee members would be leader-trained and would be expected to be able to teach the four-hour observation and feedback class,” says Foxworthy.

“We did three training courses when Bob was here for the last four days,” explains Sorensen.  “Bob did the first one, Bob and the steering team did the second one, and the steering team did the third one with Bob here. Bob left and then the next week the steering team was doing observer training on their own and they’ve just gone with it. It’s been really great to see them take ownership of it and go!”

The presentation to management went very well with a complete buy-in from the management team. As a final step, Foxworthy met with the safety team leaders to hammer out a list of pinpointed behaviors that the leaders would commit to do, track, and report in the data management system. Though he had prepared a number of slides for this session, he ultimately only showed three of them. Once again, the session took root and sprang to life when he asked the group one question, “What is your most dramatic, interesting, or funny safety story?”

As individuals shared their personal stories relating to their workplace experiences with safety, the roadmap unfolded revealing the pinpoints for which the leaders wanted to hold themselves accountable. “This process was fun and absolutely stimulating,” says Foxworthy. “It’s a conversation about safety that gets people focused on what they can do to make a difference.”

And they did make a difference! Even before the formal kickoff and within weeks of starting in-house training, employee observations began pouring in. By the first month, employees had turned in 59 high-quality safety observations, and that number is growing. Henery attributes much of the enthusiasm to the fact that the employees feel ownership and a new sense of control over their own safety. “Also the training was interactive, including a lot of exercises that got the people involved, not just sitting and listening,” he says, then adds. “I think a big reason we were able to do this was because we had a well-rounded, well-respected group of people to put it together.”

Preplanning, management support, and open communications: all elements existed in this development of a successful system that put safety on the fast track at ICL. “I’m no longer a believer that you have to do an all-or-nothing, this-is-going-to-take-a-year-to- implement type of approach. Some companies are not flexible enough to offer that, but we were very lucky to have Bob and QSE who helped us customize the BBS process to our plant,” says Sorensen. “I’m now a believer that you can do a much faster implementation if you have the right pieces in place.”

Management Support

“I don’t think we would have been able to do this in six days without our plant manager Phil Brown, he had experience beyond mine with behavior based safety, so when we started talking about BBS, there was the support from him from the get-go,” says Sorenson.

Brown’s experience with behavior-based safety (BBS) began early in his career some twenty years ago, so he has a keen eye for the do’s and don’ts of such processes. “I’ve used BBS at different places throughout my career with success and I saw it fail in other areas. The places where we were successful were those where it was very adaptable. Otherwise it became stale and stagnant and went by the wayside with a lot of other programs,” he explains. That’s why Brown was very pleased to discover that Foxworthy was willing to approach the development of the ICL plant’s process with an unexpected flexibility.

“Bob’s approach was very good from the standpoint of really being able to build on what we had done in the past and what the group wanted instead of coming in and saying this is our program and this is how you implement it,” says Brown. “A big part of what I attribute our success to was Bob’s willingness to be a supportive student, to recognize the pieces that we had in place, and to provide a guiding hand to help us bring it all together.”

According to Brown, the conversational process of customizing the plant’s safety process made the two-week implementation a learning approach that continues today throughout the plant. “We had a mix in the steering team of folks who had seen BBS work before versus some of the younger folks on the team who had no experience with BBS. Hearing the stories and the advice from the older members helped them and also resulted in a general sense of recognition that though we haven’t had terrible accidents at this plant, we have struggled with minor accidents that were really 100 percent behavior-related,” he explains.

Brown’s support of BBS at ICL is mirrored by that of the company’s entire leadership, a key to the success of the safety process. To demonstrate his support, Brown attended every training event for the plant’s approximately 160 employees. His encouragement has been met with high employee participation in BBS. “We’ve set milestones for the number of observations and have blown those numbers out of the water,” he says. “We’re continuing to get more and more people involved and we’ve put our first safety action plans out from the data we’ve collected.”

Brown’s advice to associates and others who are starting a BBS process is not to worry about the “size of the elephant in the room.”  “Find a spot to begin, get moving, and if that’s not working, you can change it,” he states. “Behavior-based safety is about just getting out there, getting started, and making it something that works for you.”

Moving Forward

Training the entire workforce and collecting ongoing safety observations provides the data needed to continually develop Safety Action Plans that target any safety concerns. Plans for celebrations for meeting behavioral milestones, constructive feedback, and always fine-tuning are part of the BBS process at ICL. The reinforcement and recognition at the plant are largely fun, celebratory events, occasionally including a few small rewards. Sorensen puts it this way, “We don’t want to focus on anything with high value where people begin pencil whipping observations for a prize. The prize is no injuries and that’s where we want to keep the focus.”

“Some consulting companies would have just come in and said, ‘This is the way you need to do your BBS process.’ What I really liked about QSE is they didn’t do that. They came in and asked, ‘Alright what do you guys want your process to be?’ And I was pleased with that.”

—Troy Sorensen, environmental, health, safety and training manager for ICL


To reduce injuries plant wide, in a positive way, by reinforcing safe actions and inviting everyone’s participation in the observation and feedback process. This will be accomplished in a way that is

  • Supported by supervisors, managers, and the company.
  • Designed and managed by employees.
  • Anonymous, voluntary and discipline free.
  • Focused on courteously and respectfully developing safe habits in our work.

The steering team members and others here at the plant really stepped up and made a very quick transition from being students to being a teachers for the plant which is not an easy thing to do,” says Phil Brown, plant manager. “They helped to make everything fall into place.” —Troy Sorensen

Steering Committee Members:

Colby Reiling, Tom Mersmann, George Goff, Josh Henery, Drew Young, Chad Christie, Richard Duncan