The tipping point for organisations striving for safety excellence typically occurs when their focus on reducing exposure surpasses injury analysis. When the majority of safety conversations from the boardroom to the pre-start meeting are prevention rather than cure in nature. It is at this point in the journey to excellence we start to see organisations attacking exposure reduction opportunities with the same sense of urgency and vigour as would be seen if a serious injury had occurred. From my experience, it is at this point organisations start seeing both the meaningful change in culture and as well as improvement in safety performance they were looking for.
Top-down safety leadership interventions have become increasingly popular in recent years. And that’s a good thing. Enhanced safety leadership and leadership functioning has an enormous impact on achieving safety excellence. My concern is that a significant number of senior leadership teams are charging forward without one of the fundamental ingredients required to achieve meaningful and sustainable improvement. If you don’t have an effective behaviour-based safety (BBS) mechanism that directly engages the workers, then your improvement capability will be limited.
Why Behaviour-Based Safety Still Matters
It is the workers who are typically exposed to the highest risks. They know more about the exposures in their workplace than senior leaders ever will. If they are taking risks while at work, senior leaders may be the last to know. Even supervisors are often kept in the dark about what really goes on in most workplaces. Years ago, I was one of over 100 plant operators and maintainers working in a chemical plant. Our motto on night shift was: “If you can’t do it right. Do it at night.” How can senior leaders make an impact on safety performance improvement without this critical information? We need to provide organisations with a tool that engages workers directly and gathers accurate data. Remember that well-worn saying, “If you can’t measure, you can’t manage.” Best practice BBS provides that instrument of measurement, but it is missing from many improvement strategies currently in place and this needs to change.
Behaviour-based safety mechanisms have been in existence for decades in Australia and around the globe. Virtually every organisation labelled as having ‘world-class safety performance’ possess an effective BBS mechanism in place. When talking about effective or best practice BBS mechanisms, I am referring to: non–threatening, peer to peer, data driven, observation and feedback processes. These elite companies recognise BBS as a fundamental ingredient to their success.
So what’s your excuse? I hear some saying, “But we do BBS? Have done so for years, and we have not improved our safety performance to the level you have described.” Well, my question would be: Are you really running an up-to-date, best practice BBS process?
Behaviour-Based Safety Today
BBS has suffered an identity crisis for many years, largely due to a lack of an agreed definition from those that pioneered the science many years ago. It has been described as everything from: a program designed to improve safety awareness and promote safe behaviour (BBS is a process. Not a start and finish program) to an approach that blames workers' behaviour as the cause of most work-related injuries and illnesses. (Nothing could be further from the truth). It has got to the stage where, if you regularly fill in a check sheet with a list of safety-related behaviours on it, then congratulations, you can tick the box for having a BBS process in place. In 2016, these definitions are a far cry from best practice BBS.
Today’s best practice BBS mechanisms are steeped in behavioural science principles, yet flexible in application across all work-related scenarios. They can be used in lone work situations or team working situations. In the office, on the road, the factory, farm, or mine. They are seen as culture change mechanisms critical to sustainable safety improvement.
They feature a tailored list of site-specific critical behaviours and systematic, non-threatening peer-to-peer conversations that take place on the job where the safety challenges and realities of day-to-day work can be accurately measured, discussed, and improved. Observation and feedback provides data on both the what and why of identified exposures to risk. Leadership decisions and actions are driven by measurable trends (as opposed to single data points). There is ownership and engagement at all levels, with workers, supervisors, and managers all having active roles in the success of the process.
BBS Helps Build a Safer Organization
The latest approach to BBS looks beyond just behaviour to enhance safety culture, systems, equipment, and the work environment. Greater involvement from supervisors and managers supporting the process has led to even more impressive outcomes with everyone from the GM to frontline workers having a clearly defined, active role in the process. Today’s BBS processes are designed to be more sensitive to exposures with serious injury and fatality potential and can be integrated more easily with other important safety initiatives like the creation and promotion of life-saving rules, more effective incident reporting, procedure improvement, and identifying training needs. The computer software used to track data has moved into the new age as well, with organisations having the capability to gather data on their smart phones and display the information in ways unimaginable even five years ago.
BBS is no silver bullet when it comes to safety excellence. In fact, there is no single tool, mechanism, or approach that will take organisations to an injury-free work environment on its own. BBS is best described as a fundamental ingredient in the recipe for safety excellence. It should be mentioned in the same breath as up-to-date and user-friendly procedures or preventative maintenance planning. But all too often, it is not. Many view it as an additional, rather than fundamental safety mechanism and implement it as a tick-sheet program rather than a culture change process. Safety excellence is not rocket science. It is about doing the fundamental things extremely well. BBS is one of these fundamentals.