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Last December, in Houston, the national OSHA Oil & Gas Conference brought renewed attention to the importance of addressing the prevention of serious incidents and fatalities. Drs. Terry McSween, CEO and President of Quality Safety Edge, and Judith Stowe, Co-Founder and Sr. Program Director, both presented papers on aspects of this topic in relation to Behavior-Based Safety (BBS). Numerous papers covered many of the basic issues in safety but these papers took a serious look at the fact that while individual safety is improving, serious incidents and fatalities have not shown the decline alongside of individual safety performance. While these presentations centered on the oil and gas industry, this phenomenon is also true in other industries such as construction.

For example a most recent article in Industrial Safety and Hygiene News reported the OSHA statistic that over 35 percent of 2014 fatalities in the construction industry were due to inadequate, faulty, or non-compliance with appropriate fall protection. Hello people, are these behaviors on your observation checklists!?? BBS has been criticized by some as dealing with the trivial and not addressing critical behaviors. So what are we overlooking?

Since many companies have active Behavior-Based Safety processes, it strongly raises the question, why aren’t their BBS processes having a greater impact on more serious incident prevention? OSHA’s data shows that most serious incidents are linked to these key safety practices: LOTO, fall protection, confined-space entry, hot work, “line of fire,” and mobile-equipment operation. While not an exhaustive list, it forces us to take a serious look at what we are doing to avoid the trivial and keep BBS relevant.

In reality, this issue is much more complex than just having a critical behavior on your checklist. The growing literature in this area more closely examines multiple factors, process issues, and organizational culture/systems issues which go beyond the scope of this article, but we can start by making our BBS process more effective.

  1. In your data analysis, never overlook even a single infraction or reported concern related to the key safety practices listed above. Any single event can be a precursor or predictor of a future, severe incident.
  2. Integrate near-miss data and all first aids and minor incidents into your analysis of BBS observation data. Create opportunities for and reinforce any near-miss information to get people reporting these kinds of events, no matter how minor. Such events are free–and valuable—lessons. By encouraging reporting of these events, you enhance worker awareness and detection of crucial pieces of information.
  3. Look at every reported checklist concern, minor injury, and near-miss in terms of exposure and severity potential. If these events had been only slightly longer, closer, higher, faster, etc. what could have been the consequences?
  4. Never let the notion creep in that a low probability or unlikely event is worth the risk if that risk has the potential for serious injury or death. NEVER let your people take that risk, no matter how unlikely. It’s not an if, but a when Think in terms of consequences, not likelihood of the event occurring.

This is not an exhaustive list but a starting point for making your process more relevant. Furthermore, while we focus on behavior, we should also remember that much behavior is driven by conditions. BBS processes can and should address conditions that put people in compromising situations and/or that expose them to risk.

In future articles, we will discuss additional factors and leadership issues that contribute to serious incidents as well as pinpoint some strategies for enhancing your BBS process.