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The Heart of a Successful Behavior-Based Safety Process

The heart of a successful behavior based safety process.
by Jerry Pounds, President, International Division

Behavior Based Safety (BBS) is a process that has been implemented by most major companies around the world. It has been in existence for almost 30 years and has significantly reduced injuries in every business and industry.

Many issues act as barriers to effectively integrating BBS into a company's safety management system. Yet, one primary mistake makes effective BBS impossible: a lack of sincerity and commitment on the part of management, something which I call the heart of BBS.

Safety management is significantly different from other important organizational functions. Quality, throughput, customer service, and other operational objectives have little to no emotional influence on employees. However, safety is a subject with many complex emotional subtexts that carry implications for the relationship between the company and its employees and the company's public image. For example, employees can become angry and resentful if they think the company does not care about their welfare, even if that is not a true perception.

Overall employee job performance is measurably affected when employees feel that the organization is willing to knowingly put them at risk. The production shortcuts to which supervisors turn a blind eye or encourage; the presence of hazards, faulty equipment, or conditions that require upper management intervention that is never forthcoming: none of these elements go unnoticed by employees. Their attitude can generally be expressed as, "If the company does not care about me, why should I care about their issues, like profitability?"

BBS consultants know that the value of safety is expressed and demonstrated by senior management in a multitude of very conspicuous ways. Do senior leaders perform observations? Do they discuss BBS at every opportunity—in meetings, on the floor with supervisors and employees? Do they look at BBS data and facilitate steering committee action plans organized to remove barriers or improve conditions and equipment? Does the annual report discuss safety?  Is safety paramount in the company core values and mission statement? Will supervisors stop work or slow down the pace to correct unsafe conditions?

It is difficult for the leaders of some companies to acknowledge that employee emotions play a major role in safety and operations in general. However, it is well documented that when companies value the welfare of their employees by having a vibrant safety culture infused with management support, it creates positive emotions in employees—healthy feelings toward their job and an inclination to follow safety rules and regulations.  BBS enhances those feelings by giving each employee an extended role and the tools to protect themselves, their coworkers, and the company's performance.

Why BBS Experiences “Heart” Failure

The companies that have not created sustained BBS processes exhibit one or more of the predictable shortcomings observable in ineffective or failed systems. Some of these include the following:

  1. The organization (senior leadership) does not visibly support either BBS or safety as a primary value. When this becomes obvious, all levels of management and the employees lose interest and pencil-whip observation checklists. The process becomes bureaucratized and meaningless.
  2. The company has tried to implement a BBS process created from within—often referred to as a homegrown BBS process.  This approach often fails because of the barriers created by internal politics. These barriers neutralize internal consultants’ ability to facilitate changes in the behavior of managers and employees.
  3. The company has utilized one of the large, multinational safety or risk-management companies to help them install a cookie-cutter process with canned training materials. These processes appear to be indifferent to the specific issues facing employees and the unique characteristics of each company’s culture.
  4. Leadership and Safety Professionals see BBS as a training implementation that does not need consulting customization. They underestimate the need for trained facilitators to work with all levels of management and employees and coach them through the learning curve. They do not understand that BBS requires that managers and employees have to learn to say and do new things to successfully institutionalize BBS into the company culture.
  5. The organization distinguishes BBS as a separate initiative introduced into their safety management culture instead of integrating it into that culture as an additional tool; just as accident investigation and job hazard analysis are tools.
  6. Senior leaders do not have an understanding of the cost of injury on profitability. The direct and indirect costs of injury on organizational profitability are well documented, as is the ROI for making safety value number 1.
  7. The organization does not understand or utilize one of the major benefits of BBS over traditional safety management practices. BBS is participative safety; through the BBS process employees are empowered to participate in activities that hold importance for their safety and that of their coworkers.  When implemented properly, each employee assumes personal responsibility for their safety and the safety of their co-workers. They become engaged and empowered by BBS.
  8. Many companies with some form of BBS in place completely overlook or underutilize the analytical capabilities provided by an engaged and empowered workforce. A good process includes more eyes, minds, and people with experience scanning the work environment for hazards, barriers, unsafe conditions, and improvement opportunities. Employees take responsibility for watching out for their coworkers.  Safety is everybody's job.

The direct link between leadership's commitment to safety and the employees’ motivation to participate in BBS and to help develop an injury free workplace cannot be overstated. If leadership does not address the issues above, the process will soon lose its life support—employee engagement—and the process will die.