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Why Your Behavior-Based Safety Process Loses Steam

By Jerry Pounds

Creating a successful Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) process is a challenge, and companies around the world are addressing that challenge as you read these lines. Barriers to success include the following:

Leadership fails to “behave” supportively–that is they do not say and do things that convince employees that safety is value #1–and their priorities and decisions do not support the BBS process and the removal of systems barriers to safe behavior.

  • The organization tries to implement “off-the-shelf, packaged” BBS processes that are not adapted to the culture of the site’s country, business, work group, and specific job functions.
  • Leadership seems unable or unwilling to transfer ownership of the BBS process to middle management, frontline supervision, and frontline employees or create a partnered process with leaders.
  • BBS is crippled by dysfunctional observation processes–the result of poorly trained observers, checklists that are too generalized and not specific to the individual and work groups, and unsafe conditions and systems that are not identified, translated into action plans, and immediately addressed and resolved.
  • The BBS process does not have effective data software for collecting and organizing critical information that is reviewed and applied effectively by the Steering Committee and leadership.
  • Leaders fail to institutionalize a social contract between all employees–leaders, managers, supervisors and frontline employees—that encourages all employees to protect their coworkers through positive intervention when they see unsafe conditions or unsafe behavior.

At the moment, your organization may be grappling with one or more of the preceding failure-traps for BBS. Many organizations have overcome these obstacles and have created smoothly functioning processes, but the issue of sustainability surfaces in every BBS process regardless of the organization’s success in the first year or two, especially 

if . . . as the problems are retired, the activities are less productive.

if . . . change, improvement, and problem-solving activities have plateaued.

if . . . employee learning, growth, and development have peaked.

When your company has implemented BBS successfully, 90 percent of existing safety issues will be addressed and resolved in the first year. In addition, most employees will become highly aware of their job behavior; and safe work behavior will become a habit. At this point, most employees will begin to think that high rates of observation are uncalled for and the steering committee and leadership roles will be less critical.

These realities set the stage for boredom and complacence. The initial necessity for improvement elicits high levels of interest and activity which in turn create energy and urgency. When most of the improvement is obtained, the context changes and all of these factors are diminished. Hence the ever-present quest for “a shot in the arm,” a phrase you hear at every safety conference, along with the question, “How do we keep our employees engaged in BBS?”

You’re Asking the Wrong Question!

The reason you never get a good answer to the question, “How do we keep our process exciting and keep employees engaged?” is because you’re asking the wrong question. The real question is, “How can we generalize employee skill sets developed in our BBS process and provide interesting and challenging opportunities for them to apply their learning, tools, and experience?”

Most companies attempt to renew and reenergize their BBS processes by invoking the same rhetoric and rationales they originally used to promote employee buy-in and participation. They say the same things louder, more flamboyantly, or innovatively—but, they are still just trying harder to get employees to do the same things, only more enthusiastically.
A core precept of employee engagement is the idea that continuous development, education, and training encourage employees to extend the reach of their behavioral skill sets and competences to new applications, challenges, and tasks. Doing the same thing over and over again leads to boredom, disinterest, and attention drift.

Many companies default to tangible or financial rewards to reawaken employee participation and achievement in their BBS process. This usually results in renewed interest and involvement–in the short term–but long range it creates problems. Financial or tangible rewards for behavior change employee perceptions about the value of the tasks and outcomes being incentivized: They ask, “Why do they have to give us something extra to do these things?”

Most employees assume that safety is a value if the existing performance management/reward and recognition systems are applied to safety related behavior. That is, if you can be disciplined, fired, positively evaluated, recognized (social awards), promoted, raised, or bonused for safety related behavior, then it must be a core value. When you introduce an incentive program–cash, gifts, catalog items, and so on–the assumption is that the behavior you are asking employees to engage in is somehow outside the parameters of the organization’s core value system.

They see the behavior incented as a “program,” a temporary collection of tasks and objectives outside the scope of their traditional performance management system. The behavior and results the incentives are applied to are perceived to be tactical, not strategic; priorities not supportive of or targeted toward an organizational value.

These are a few of the understandable, but misguided approaches to re-energizing a BBS system. Employee engagement is not just a gadget away; attaining and sustaining that engagement (via ongoing training, challenges, and skill set innovations) takes planning and management support, but safety is well worth the effort.

Jerry Pounds, is Senior Vice President-International at Quality Safety Edge (QSE).