Behavior-Based Safety, also known as BBS, is the principle or process of merging a person’s actions and decisions at work with the desire to create and maintain a safer workplace. To define it another way, Behavior-Based Safety is a way to focus on what people do, analyze why they do it, and then apply a research-based intervention strategy to improve.

The value of BBS comes from knowing 88% of injuries are a direct result of human error, whether through action or inaction. Many potential (and preventable) injuries can be avoided by addressing the human factors that contribute to injury causes.

At its very core, BBS research is based on a larger scientific field called Organizational Behavior Managementa>, which states that behavior can be changed by applying behavioral analysis to workplace practices. BBS was seen as the only approach necessary to improve safety and reduce incidents.

A brief history of BBS

Image of steel worker wearing safety gearBBS initially began from research conducted by Herbert William Heinrich (1886-1962), who found that most injuries in the workplace resulted from unsafe acts or behavior. It wasn’t until 1984 that BBS began showing its effectiveness in the workplace by demonstrating that the frequency and severity of injuries could be reduced when there’s a focus on the human factor.

For years, safety success was measured by how many injuries a company had. Injuries were attributed to unsafe conditions in the workplace. Nobody realized that most of those identified “conditions” were a result of what people did or didn’t do.

For example, a missing guard from a machine was considered an unsafe condition without questioning how the guard went missing in the first place. The guard likely was removed by a person—for whatever reason—and not re-installed. The machine operator – for whatever reason – chose to operate the equipment without the guard in place. So, if someone was injured because of a missing guard, the root cause or major contributing factor was that an unsafe condition existed—not because people saw a problem and ignored it.

How it changed workplace safety

When employers began to realize that the greatest contributing factor to injuries was related to a person’s action or decision, the pendulum swung from focusing on unsafe conditions (resulting in less than 10% of workplace injuries) to addressing the elephant in the room—people and their unsafe practices.

BBS can be credited for illuminating the single greatest cause of injuries and the area of greatest concern. Employers and employees could now see a shift in the reduction of injuries at a far greater rate than all the previous inspections and lists of unsafe conditions did.

This finding led employers and safety professionals to conclude that most injuries were and are, indeed, preventable, and not something left to fate or luck.

Even now in 2023, current research shows that BBS can be as effective at mitigating a broad range of hazards as engineering controls are in mitigating a single hazard. The study shows, however, that employers with marked success in injury reduction using BBS principles have refined BBS into a more mature BBS system that incorporates employee, management, and procedural improvements.

BBS components

Image of sheet metal workerWhen someone mentions BBS in a safety conversation, the most famous component that comes to mind is making workplace observations. The point is to train and assign employees to conduct observations on their peers or for supervisors to observe employees with the purpose of identifying positive actions and those that may require “improvement”. The intent is to create a positive environment for which peer-to-peer communication can take place in which feedback from the observer is accepted that provides for a safer work environment and work practices.

Another BBS component involves increased employee participation and engagement, as employees help each other work safely through identifying improvements and providing encouragement on doing things the right way. The theory relies on greater employee participation leading to greater safety and fewer injuries.

A software program that could track observations performed with their findings for analysis and trend recognition is also a critical component of BBS. Without a reasonable means to collect, analyze, and interpret observation data, the process can become overwhelming with little to show for it.

Shortfalls of BBS

While BBS had a strong initial showing, the way it was presented to employers has led to significant shortfalls.

In many companies it soon started to lose its value, as it developed into a numbers game. People became focused on receiving large numbers of observations, with the quality of the observations not being a concern.

Companies developed issues with blaming workers, or observations being seen as personal vendettas. BBS became stagnant with no continuous improvement, as companies were buying off-the-shelf programs from consultancies and spending exuberant amounts of money for a program that was probably not fit for purpose.

Traditional BBS programs typically fail as they do not identify what drives employees to be in a hazardous situation. After an incident, a company will typically amend procedures, enforce new rules, put up posters and send out notifications etc., yet usually a similar incident will occur again. This is because companies do not investigate the systemic cause for employee behaviour that likely contradicts company policy and even common sense. Asking the most basic questions of ‘Why’ could change everything.”

Another shortfall directly related to the above is that after an injury occurs, the incident investigation findings often point to the employee who was injured. The ‘root cause’ will often state, “The employee failed to follow procedures,” or “the employee was not paying attention to their surroundings.” It lay the blame on the person, instead of actually identifying the root cause and other contributing factors.

For example, an employee slips and falls on hydraulic fluid found in a pedestrian walkway, resulting in a fractured leg. The investigation findings stated that the employee failed to watch where he was going. Period. The employer’s thinking, according to surface-level BBS, is that the injury would’ve been prevented if the employee had been watching where they were going.

Further investigation would have found that another employee had stopped a forklift that was transporting a load next to a walkway so the employee could remove a pallet splinter out of the lift’s path. The lift had a hydraulic leak but, according to the operator, it wasn’t bad enough to report. The fluid leaked onto the floor and migrated to the walkway. Four other employees saw the spill and walked around it, out into the forklift aisle to avoid walking through the fluid—again without reporting it. Our “victim” was carrying a box from the maintenance shop to the production floor, anticipating the walkway to be clear.

As injured people kept being blamed for… well… being injured, employees stopped reporting incidents to avoid getting disciplined.

Another issue with BBS is it could be placing a bit too much emphasis on employee behavior as primary driver of workplace injuries. As highlighted in an OHSOnline article on Performance Safety, an employee’s actions are just one piece of the puzzle. For a complete picture, safety must be integrated into all the functions of the business:

  • Processes (what is done)
  • Procedures (how it should be performed)
  • Practices (how it is actually performed by employees)

If the process is flawed, an injury can occur. If the procedures are flawed or missing steps, an injury can occur. If an employee makes a bad decision or takes a shortcut, an injury can occur.

Regardless of its associated title or name given for marketing purposes, these three Ps must be integrated into the safety value to be successful. Focusing on only one of the three, like BBS does, potentially exposes companies and their people to undue risk.

Does BBS work today?

BBS, as it has been refined or matured, still has a place in today’s workplace. But there are some important caveats to consider:

  • Buying someone else’s program will lead to failure
  • Operating under traditional BBS concepts will lead to incomplete or wrong conclusions
  • Any organization can learn from BBS and the refined BBS movement and adopt the principles without having to “purchase” it
  • Employee engagement and participation is one key to successfully strengthening a safety culture which, thereby, leads to reduced injuries and greater productivity

Safety is a team sport

BBS-type safety works best when every level within the organization participates. This is not a top-to-bottom or a bottom-to-top management style. It is an all-inclusive, team-based management style.

Executive management, managers and supervisors, and front-line employees all must lead by example and support the process of engagement and participation.

The results go far beyond just reducing injuries. Morale and trust improve; quality of work and housekeeping improve; absenteeism and turnover decrease; community reputation and employee retention increase. It builds an organization that people want to work in.