How Behavior-Based Safety Could Become Mainstream

Aug. 20, 2014
However you feel about behavior-based safety and its supposed shortcomings, a variety of emerging trends and factors are aligning to make an actual BBS system both more achievable and more effective.

In the realm of health and safety management, few topics have been a greater source of ongoing controversy over the years than behavior-based safety (BBS). Some safety professionals believe this approach to environment, health and safety (EHS) management helps reduce worker error, thereby minimizing health and safety incidents and, ultimately, saving lives. Others, however, think the approach is inherently flawed and suffers from a lack of quantifiable metrics and actionable intelligence.

Just as we have divergent beliefs on the value of BBS approaches, it is important to clarify that we also have widely different conceptions of what actually constitutes BBS. Some think that simply having a form of safety incentive program means they have achieved BBS, while others believe it is a much broader and all-encompassing management approach.

However you feel about BBS and its supposed shortcomings, a variety of emerging trends and factors are aligning to make an actual BBS system both more achievable and more effective. Although BBS in general encapsulates a much broader philosophical approach to safety management, here we will dive more into how it is possible to capture and track BBS data to actually make a safety program more effective in the long term.

Safety management is becoming more comprehensive. One of the sticking points for critics of BBS is that behavioral data is tough to capture. And that's understandable. There’s a myriad of human factors that lead to safety incidents and accidents and, in any case, it’s hard to point toward causation, not to mention find trends in causation.

And yet this is exactly what a BBS approach wants to achieve. According to conventional BBS wisdom, the original cause of one accident or fatality is linked directly to worker error, and it also supposes that these errors are repeated, and therefore capable of being eliminated.

No, it’s not that easy, and it will always be tricky to lock down incident and accident causation to patterns of repeat behavior. However, what we have seen over the years is only an increasing level of comprehensiveness in terms of behavioral data that we are able to capture. And it’s not as if we’re heading toward less data on this front. We’ll only continue to have more and more actionable intelligence on safety-related behavior, so it stands to reason this increased visibility will evolve best practices in EHS management to increasingly call upon us to capture and act upon this data.

Wearable technology will let us capture behavioral metrics. We’ve spoken in the past about how wearable technology in the workforce is poised to transform EHS approaches. And the point could not be more salient than in the BBS conversation. As wearables enable us to gain increasing visibility into worker behavior, health, activity and environmental factors, we will only get more actionable data to analyze and eventually use to implement new health and safety standards to improve worker conditions.

From location-based PPE to wearable environmental monitoring devices, it will become easier and easier for us to understand the exact conditions that lead to an incident. Aggregate data will eventually point us to weak links in our health and safety systems and, with this knowledge, we’ll be able to implement corrective and preventive actions that were previously unattainable.

Qualitative, case-based history can be broken down into actionable data. Whenever a tragic safety incident occurs, smart organizations conduct detailed investigations into the why and how behind the incident. If an employee dies, we need to know exactly why it happened, and perhaps more importantly, we need to know how we can prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

Fortunately, technology and metrics-based mindsets are enabling us to break down previously qualitative accounts into actionable intelligence. Instead of simply building case-based accounts of how, for example, an employee fell, or how machine guarding was not properly maintained, we can extract data from qualitative accounts and then build it into aggregate models to better understand systematically why, when and how things happen.

The other side of the BBS coin is safety culture. Technology will only take us so far, of course. The only effective backbone of a strong safety program is a good safety culture. The two are inextricably linked, and no matter how far technology takes us, our frontline workers need to be motivated to build a culture of progressive safety, or it will never happen.

However, between the emergent social circuit of exposure—insofar as few negative safety events for major companies are unexposed online—and the sheer pace of news cycles, the game has changed. The days when deadly safety events went unnoticed are over. Frontline workers know this. The public at large knows this. And stakeholders know this. Knowing that the roots of many negative safety incidents lie in the realm of worker behavior, market leaders will pay increasing attention to this behavioral data.

Job safety observations are improving and becoming more metrics-based. Job safety observations (JSOs) are a cornerstone of BBS programs. Health and safety personnel go in, observe safety behaviors among frontline workers, and attempt to compile metrics and draw conclusions on the basis of these observations.

In principle, that’s great. But historically, these JSOs have been so qualitative we haven’t been able to draw compelling conclusions or actionable intelligence. That’s changing. Between big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable tech, the trend is clear: We’re gaining more and more intelligence on how frontline workers behave, what they do, and the results that flow from their actions. While JSOs used to be a comparatively immature enterprise, they are poised to become a whole lot more metrics-based and influential. So stay tuned.

I think the bottom line behind all of this goes back to safety culture. We can implement as many tracking systems as we want and we can try to observe our workers all day. But the moment a supervisor isn’t looking, an employee might take off their safety goggles. They might not use the fall protection because it is a “quick job.” And that’s where the chinks in the armor are laid plain. Only dedicated due diligence by all parties will make unfortunate accidents and fatalities a thing of the past.

As far as BBS technological support can take us, we need the backbone of a strong safety culture to get us there effectively.

Regardless of your operational strategy, having a set of effective metrics is crucial to benchmark progress and make adjustments within your organization. This is often easier said than done. In conjunction with MESA International, LNS Research surveyed more than 200 manufacturers across industries to find out the 28 metrics that are really moving the needle in key financial and operational measurements today. Download the free eBook, 2013-2014 Manufacturing Metrics that Really Matter.

>>Paul Leavoy, [email protected], is a research analyst with LNS Research (

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