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Safety Culture & Behavior-Based Safety

According to the safety & health industry publications, behavior-based safety is the latest and greatest solution to poor safety performance. In my personal file, there are over 30 articles and five textbooks gathered over the past two years on the topic. All of them offering promises of turning your company's safety performance from flat to fantastic. Although it's no magic bullet for injury prevention, there is data to prove that as observations go up, injuries go down. The question is: "Will it work for your company?" The promises of behavior-based safety (BBS) results are not empty ones, but your company has to be ready.

The truth of the matter is that behavior-based safety does not work in every company. In many Ohio companies it was just another "program of the month". There is plenty of resistance to behavioral programs that promise big benefits but only result in more paperwork, less progress and a mountain of wasted time for safety teams.

Rest assured that behavior-based safety does work. However, like any other prevention program, the conditions need to be right. A viable seed can be expected to grow with fertile soil, sunshine and water. Likewise, conditions like management support, effective management systems and company culture are key to determining whether or not a company is ready for behavior-based safety. Since implementation of these programs can be costly, how can one tell whether or not a company is ready for it?

Readiness indicators: There are five conditions that dramatically increase the likelihood of success: Effective leadership; Established safety systems and processes; Safety involvement teams; Organizational style; Measurement and accountability.

Leadership: Leadership must be active, visible and lively in its commitment to injury and illness prevention. It's helpful if top executives can articulate a clear and inspiring vision that injury-free performance is the only acceptable goal. Managers in safe companies view safety as a line management responsibility rather than the job of the safety manager or committee. Ideally, the top executive includes safety as a core organizational value equal to productivity and quality. Leadership support is to a safety program as sunlight is to that young seedling; without it - sure death.

Systems: In order for BBS to be effective, the basic safety programs need to be in place. This includes minimum OSHA compliance, accident investigation, hazard audits, recordkeeping systems, etc. Safety must be able to walk before it can be expected to run. More advanced systems enhancements like observation, coaching, safety involvement teams, job safety analysis, accountability, safety by objectives, etc. all rely on the basics being in place. Though individual behavior change is crucial, the best BBS systems target systems changes because they're capable of influencing the entire organization. Systems and processes guide decisions and behaviors on the job. As enthusiastic as the leader may be about safety, if the systems do not align with the boss’ message, behavior change won't last. The observation system has no roots and withers in the sun.

Involvement: Safety involvement teams are a tool that successful BBS programs use to get employee involvement. Well-trained teams, that are skilled at problem solving and decision making, get results. A safety involvement team is ideal for managing observation data and corrective action. Teams are the link between individual coaching and systems fixes. Employee involvement enhances innovation, ownership and results. Labor/management cooperation, especially within the teams, serves as a catalyst for success. Without participation and involvement behavior-based systems rarely get off the ground.

Caution: the typical safety committee does not have the skills, time or vision to manage the behavior-based process. A specially trained team is best for success.

Another critical facet of involvement is buy-in. Behavioral systems are much more effective in organizations that work hard at winning buy-in from the plant floor to the executive suite before they are introduced. Successful companies take the time to solicit suggestions and allow as many people as possible to participate in the decisions and design of the system.

Organizational style: A positive social climate of trust, openness, respect for individuals, positive reinforcement, etc. is an intangible of organizational life that dramatically effects worker performance. With a more negative organizational style involvement is low, complaining replaces problem solving and coaching seems like scolding. In companies low on trust, behavior-based safety is resisted because it symbolizes another way to oppress the worker.

Measurement and accountability: What gets measured gets done. Clearly defined responsibilities at every level of the organization is key for top performance. The process or activities that create a safe work environment are far more important than injury rates when trying to create a safety culture. When performance evaluations include safety meeting, hazard correction, skills development and observation goals, then things get done. Unfortunately, the safety director is often saddled with all of the responsibility for safety and none of the authority to get things done. In the world's safest companies, supervisors, managers and executives take the responsibility for safety.

Implementation tips: Other important ingredients include: the right training, competent supervision, experienced safety leaders, and the right behavior-based safety model. It is important to provide the right training for the right people at the right time. There should be something expected from every person in the organization to contribute to the process. Don't give them all the same training, simply what they need to do their part well and understand what others are doing. Then give them the chance to apply it right away.

Supervisors can make or break the process. If they coach poorly, more problems are created in the culture. If they don't coach at all, unsafe behavior continues. Include training on observation skills, coaching skills, conflict management, problem solving and leading teams for supervisors.

In addition to being ready, there is the art of executing it well. The safety manager must make an accurate judgment of the readiness of a company before implementation. First work on making the culture right for success. Sometimes this can take years but it's worth the wait.

Finally, not all behavior change processes are equal. Shop the market because some programs are more compatible within a participative organizational climate, others work best in companies where trust is a problem. Be sure to shop for one that can be customized to your company.

Summary: Any skilled safety professional will recognize that the readiness indicators identified above will help any safety program succeed. However, readiness is even more crucial with behavior-based safety. There will be a flurry of activity, safety awareness increases and expectations are raised. Since this is a high profile program, false starts can be costly to the long-term safety culture. Though it is not a scientific instrument, self-assessment scores of six or greater for each of the axes indicate fairly fertile ground for your behavior-based process to grow in.

For more information: Contact your state Workers’ Comp office.

-- by Jim Fograscher, Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, Division Of Safety & Hygiene