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Leading The Way to Behavior-Based Safety

By Gail Snyder

When Terry Nay joined Arizona’s Tucson Electric Power (TEP) several years ago as its corporate safety director, he already knew from firsthand experience how a behavior-based safety (BBS) process could be made to fail through improper implementation. So when several safety representatives at TEP expressed an interest in BBS, he not only knew what to do, but what not to do.

Nay’s initiation into BBS came during his employment with an Arizona-based mining company that had experienced several employee fatalities. The company was in desperate need of a culture change. “They went out and looked at behavior-based safety, saw it was a great tool, and decided to implement it across the corporation which included mining operations and also some manufacturing operations in their wire and cable groups,” Nay explains. As the organization attempted to use BBS with the mining side of the operations, a few problems quickly surfaced, and Nay took note:

  • BBS was dictated from the corporate level. “Corporate said ‘Everybody’s going to do BBS, but management’s not involved. It’s an employee process, but managers, you’re responsible to make sure it gets implemented,” says Nay.
  • Managers didn’t like employees taking time for safety meetings. “Managers would grudgingly give them time, but there was no engagement in terms of helping overcome roadblocks or being cheerleaders for the teams,” he states.
  • BBS involvement never rose beyond compliance. “It was just ‘Okay, we’ve complied with the dictates from on high,’” Nay recalls.
  • Only a handful of people were trained in the process. “Employees didn’t really know what BBS was about,” Nay explains. “They just knew they were told they were on a team. They did it, I’ll say perfunctorily.”

Not surprisingly, BBS, under such circumstances, was not a success. “Nobody was truly engaged in it and there was no true maintenance or efforts to make it grow, so with the mining organization in particular, it just died and disappeared when corporate got interested in other things,” Nay concludes.

When Nay was promoted to the division director of safety and health over the wire and cable division, he took the lessons learned and applied them in several plants. “We were able to make some good changes. People were excited, management became a little more engaged, and it was helping us solve some safety issues,” he says. However, Nay was again promoted and several years later joined TEP.

Back to BBS

Proceed with caution was the approach that Nay took when asked about doing BBS in one of TEP’s divisions. He liked the enthusiasm of some key operations supervisors and team leaders who had been involved in a management observation process and wanted to learn more about using a safety observation process. These four operational safety champions (Dave White, Gloria Tileston-Tharp, Greg Wildman, and Eileen Dickerson) attended a Behavior Safety Now (BSN) conference that proved to be an eye-opener.

They quickly realized that their idea of behavioral observations had been simply to watch people work, rather than focusing on specific behaviors and providing feedback. Undeterred, they asked Nay to help with a BBS implementation. “I said, “If you do it right, it can be a very powerful tool, but you have to do it right,’” says Nay.

Do the Pre-Implementation Work

Nay began by putting together a team that included well-respected superintendents, frontline employees, and journeymen selected by their peers. Nay requested and got team members who were open-minded but also not afraid to give management candid feedback about BBS.

TEP also brought in consultants from several companies to present the BBS process, and when the team discovered that the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) in Sacramento, California, was successfully using BBS, he took the core team for a visit. The team members talked to employees at all levels one-on-one to learn about how they used the process and how it worked for them. Meanwhile, Nay shared relevant BBS white papers, articles, and books with the core team members.

“Our core team started getting excited and saying, ‘This is something that could help us get things done, could help us solve safety issues that we’ve had.’ When they got to that point, that’s when we pulled the trigger,” Nay says. “I think that creating excitement and educating the workforce and management made a tremendous difference in the implementation. Then we hired Grainne Matthews from Quality Safety Edge (QSE) to get us started.”

“Terry really championed BBS, but in such a low-key way, it never put any pressure on anybody, and he was determined that the management and the employees would ask for BBS before he started the project,” says Matthews. This measured approach brought such success for the BBS pilot that TEP is now rolling out BBS to other divisions, but as Nay asserts, “We’re going through the exact same process with each division.”

Keep it Real!

Making sure the management team knows all that is involved in a good BBS implementation and involving them in the process is integral, according to Nay. Leaders must know the cost not only in terms of dollars but in terms of personal time and the time of the employees who work for them. “I think the worst thing that could happen is we start out the process and then people aren’t allowed to go to meetings, people aren’t allowed to prepare for meetings, or management says, ‘No, we’re not going to give you money to fix that.’ As soon as that starts happening, you actually take two steps back,” Nay comments.

Nay also credits the BBS success at TEP to ongoing follow-up education and the detailed agendas provided by QSE. TEP created the internal process champion position, superbly filled by Elizabeth Firkins. “That’s another critical thing that we’ve done differently that I think really has benefitted us. Elizabeth is an operational leader that spends 70 to 80 percent of her whole work life coaching and guiding these teams, helping them overcome hurdles, encouraging them, and building training opportunities,” he says, and adds, “I’m a strong believer now that BBS has to be a pull rather than a push. It requires continual fertilization of the team members’ knowledge base, and continual watering—us cheering them on. That doesn’t happen unless management is engaged right up front, knows what they’re getting into, and are willing to give the time, money, and effort to make it happen. They also must be there during meetings so they can help the teams overcome hurdles and coach quietly from behind the curtain.”

Celebrate the Right Things

Management (and employees) have had plenty to cheer about since they first began the observation process a little over one year ago. In June 2010, when the BBS teams passed the 50 percent participation mark in performing observations, the recordable injury rate dropped from an average of two per month to zero. To date, the rate of zero recordables has held for 11.5 months with one exception. A TEP employee, sitting in a company truck at a stop sign was rear-ended by a non-employee driver and suffered whiplash. “So we have not had a behavior on an injury where our employee actively participated in any way, shape, or form in what happened in almost a year since we crossed the 50 percent participation mark. Our people are more engaged; they’re thinking about safety more because they’re talking about it more, so it’s really had a dramatic impact on us,” says Nay.

However impressive that is, the celebrations at TEP are never based on incident rate. Luncheons, celebrations, recognition, certificates, and other means of positive reinforcement are always based on reaching goals for numbers of observations completed or other behaviors that contribute to the BBS effort. “Our celebrations are focused on the process not the end result,” says Nay.

Asked how he would explain this to someone not familiar with BBS, Nay answers: “Why celebrate behaviors and not results? Because what you are trying to do is reinforce participation and out of participation the results will come. If they participate, people are going to be talking about safety and thinking about safety more than they ever have before, specifically the behaviors that we’ve identified as an issue.  And so by celebrating their participation, we’re encouraging them to continue doing those things that get us the results.”