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Three Types of Behavior-Based Safety: One Size Does Not Fit All

A user on one of the behavior-based safety (BBS) sections of recently stated that he thought BBS was one of the “simpler” elements of an organization’s safety management system. Though I did not respond at the time, I considered that this comment was probably made by someone whose only experience with BBS was a STOP system, or one of the other relatively basic observation programs promoted by a number of organizations and practitioners.

In fact, almost all the companies that I talk with claim either to have in place, or have tried, some form of behavior-based safety. In some cases, I agree with them, but other times, I find they claim to have a BBS process because they use a process that targets behavior, or they have the STOP program developed by DuPont over thirty years ago.

Addressing The Misconceptions

To address such misconceptions, I would like to to discuss several types of modern BBS initiatives: define their features, explain their empirical basis, share their relative results, and describe situations when each might be appropriate.

Before looking at modern approaches however, I would like to review what I will call “Old Style” BBS. DuPont’s STOP program from the 1960s was a notable first attempt to systematically address behavior. They promoted the use of a pocket-sized generic “one size fits all” checklist. The assumption was that each discussion “fixed” the behavior. Safety committees did not conduct any formal summary or trending of observation data, nor did they typically use behavioral technology to identify and address the external causes of behavior.

Common Elements in Today’s BBS –BBS today includes several basic elements. In all modern BBS processes, the safety committee manages the process. In addition, the checklist is not generic. The safety committee, or sometimes the Safety Department, creates the checklists based on a systematic analysis of the injuries in the facility. They identify the behaviors that would have prevented 80-90% of the injuries that have occurred in the last three to five years

The checklists identify safety practices that are specific to the area or function where they will be used. Often, a single facility develops multiple checklists addressing the needs of different areas or functional groups. The safety issues are different in the warehouse versus the QA lab versus production areas versus the maintenance group, so typically they need different checklists. Observers use the checklists as the basis for observation and feedback.

Feedback and Discussion

Feedback and discussion are critical elements of a modern BBS process and always follow the observation. In the best programs, every level of management’s role is very clearly defined and tracked, and the BBS effort is well integrated with, and used to support and encourage, other critical elements of the site’s safety efforts, especially process safety and near-miss reporting.

Today’s BBS process also includes very systematic analysis of observation data resulting in action plans that address environmental causes of behavior, whether those causes are in the physical facilities or the social environment. Usually, specialized software is required to facilitate summarizing, reporting, and analyzing the observation data. Furthermore, the safety committee uses the observation data in a very systematic way to target safety practices in need of improvement and conduct an ABC Analysis in order to identify causes of those behaviors and develop an action plan targeting improvements.

Let me stress that BBSFed observations and feedback are in addition to, and ideally well integrated with, all of the basic elements of a safety management system, including incident investigations, safety committees, facility audits, job safety analyses, safety meetings, process safety initiatives, management of change, and many others. Safety committees also review other safety information, such as near-miss and incident data, and develop action plans, as they would without the BBS process. In other words, safety committee members are responsible for more than just the observation process.

Leadership Observations

Leadership (only) observations – For some organizations, an appropriate form of BBS is to engage all managers and supervisors in conducting regular safety observations. Hermann, Ibarra, & Hopkins (2010) presented the results of an effective BBS process in which the supervisors, managers, and safety managers conducted observations. Safety personnel scheduled observations to occur once per week and scheduled supervisors to conduct observations in areas other than their own. All of the managers and supervisors participated in safety committee meetings every week to review safety and observation data, set targets, and discuss progress on action items. As with other types of BBS, the weekly safety observations and feedback were in addition to all of the traditional elements of a basic safety program, including facility audits, incident investigations, safety meetings, and various communication campaigns. The result was a 99% reduction in lost-time injuries and a 92% reduction in medical treatment cases.

This type of BBS process is efficient and effective for many organizations. It has the advantage of being less costly to implement due to the small number of observers that need training. In fact, managers and supervisors often have already been trained in how to provide feedback. Providing feedback is a critical skill that is relevant to managerial and supervisory jobs in areas other than safety—and safety is a great place to both provide and practice the skill. This approach is also most appropriate for organizations where leadership has historically sent the wrong message about safety and often may be a first step to build a foundation for other BBS efforts that promote a higher level of involvement of other employees.

Designated Employees

Designated employees – Another approach to BBS expands involvement in the safety observations and feedback to include employees in conducting observations. Typically, employees are asked to volunteer to be observers, and then one of the volunteers in each area is selected to participate as an observer. Once trained, observers in this type of BBS process conduct observations of their entire department for 15-20 minutes once a day. Generally, the employee observations and feedback are in addition to those conducted by leadership. Again, managers and supervisors all participate in a weekly, or sometimes monthly, safety committee meeting. After six months or a year, the role of observer rotates to other volunteers so that, over time, all employees have the opportunity to be designated observers and conduct the observations and feedback.

Dominic Cooper (2009) reports a number of case studies documenting the effectiveness of this approach. The companies he describes routinely achieve medical treatment case rates of from .06 to .35 per 200,000 work hours, and near elimination of lost-time injuries. (For a detailed description of this approach, see Cooper, 2009.)

The designated employee model is often best for authoritarian organizations that do not have a history of employee involvement and have little understanding or use of reinforcement. It is often easier to maintain than the “all employee” model described below.

All Employees

All employees – The final type of BBS process strives to create much broader involvement in safety and results in more significant culture change. In this model, all employees are encouraged to participate, voluntarily, as observers. This level of involvement is supported by studies that show that observers tend to work more safely (This is often called the observer effect, and has been described and investigated by John Austin, Alicia Alvero, and others). Myers, McSween, Medina, Rost and Alvero (2010) reported a case study showing the effectiveness of this approach. In this type of process, employees volunteer to conduct one safety observation per week. The safety committee includes members of leadership and employees and its members are actively engaged in encouraging and supporting participation in the process. They arrange recognition and celebrations to support participation. Their goal is to achieve and sustain the highest possible level of employee participation in conducting observations.

The Myers, et. al. study reported statistically significant reductions in both medical treatment cases and lost-time injuries. Lost workday cases dropped to near zero, and medical treatment rates dropped from an average of 4.14 per 200,000 work hours to an average of .79 per 200,000 work hours for fourteen years! In the later years, the site routinely achieved medical treatment rates of .1 per 200,000 work hours for its employees and .35 for its contract workforce. (For a detailed description of this approach, see McSween, 2003.)

This approach appears to be best for organizations that are committed to absolutely minimizing injuries. Data on observer effect supports impact of observations on observers, so the more employees participate in observations, the greater the impact. However, this approach requires a significant effort by both management and the safety committees to build and sustain high levels of participation in conducting the observations and feedback. An effective safety committee structure is critical.

In conclusion, this article is not meant to present every type of BBS process, nor is it meant to be prescriptive. Rather the intent is to show a range of the options for designing a BBS process that may fit the needs of a given organization. In our experience, organizations are complex social environments and clearly one size does not fit all.


Cooper, D. (2009) Behavioral safety: A framework for success. Franklin, IN, B-Safe Solutions Inc.
Hermann, J. A, Ibarra, G. V., & Hopkins, B.L. A. (2010) Safety Program that Integrated Behavior Based Safety with Traditional Safety Methods and Its Effects on Injury Rates of Workers, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 30(1), 6-25.
McSween, T.E. (2003) The values-based safety process: Improving you safety culture with behavior-based safety (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.
Myers, W.V., McSween, T. E., Medina, R.E., Rost, K., and Alvero, A.M. (2010) The Implementation and Maintenance of a Behavioral Safety Process in a Petroleum Refinery, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 30(4), 285-305.