Behavior-based safety (BBS) is an integral part of any high-functioning safety system. It engages employees, builds teamwork, creates active and informed exposure reduction practices, provides leaders with data for decision making, and helps root out causes of incidents and near misses so they never happen again. In our work with organizations across the globe, we have seen BBS transform performance and create meaningful change in culture, change that lasts and propels the enterprise past goals once thought unreachable. How effective BBS is, however, depends greatly on how it’s executed.
Over the years, BBS has become watered down by practitioners who don’t fully understand the power of this process. They treat it as an isolated initiative, cut off from the rest of the safety system and the organization. They fail to leverage all the ways BBS can support better performance and, conversely, don’t provide employees with the tools they need to make BBS work for them. The result is an impotent program that leaves employees feeling threatened and disengaged.
So, how do we achieve the former and avoid the latter? How do we make our BBS system shine and not molder in obscurity? In our experience, there are several key actions leaders can take to ensure effective BBS execution. These are the secrets of great BBS systems:
Look beyond behavior – Great systems don’t just hand workers a check sheet with a list of safety-related behaviors to monitor. They involve everyone, from the general manager to people on the front lines, with clearly defined roles to keep the process moving forward. Supervisors and managers understand what they do and say impacts engagement in the process. They model desired behaviors, listen to employee concerns, and follow up to remove hazards and ensure that workers have what they need to work safely.
Make workers feel comfortable – Great BBS processes include safeguards to ensure anonymity and don’t use safety information to punish employees for reporting incidents. Absence of these safeguards can create a lack of trust between workers and management. Successful processes bridge this gap and assist in moving the culture to one where every employee is committed to controlling exposure and feels genuinely valued. If the process does not move forward with employee commitment and a culture that supports it, it will wither and fail.
Keep lines of communication open, active, and responsive – Great processes include the entire workforce in data analysis, education, celebrating successes, safety communication, and encouraging employees to become engaged. Using safety information, audits, and other teams’ data, and sharing the results in safety meetings, toolbox talks and staff conferences allows the process to flourish. A feedback-rich environment leads to more effective safety conversations across all organizational levels.
Tailor the process to site, department, and task specifications – One way BBS can break down is when we apply it uniformly across the organization. Having behaviors associated with activities in the Maintenance department on the list of behaviors to be observed in the lab doesn’t make a lot of sense—and it doesn’t inspire lab employees to engage in the process. Great processes recognize that different challenges exist in different areas of the organization and adapt the process to meet those demands, while staying consistent with the principles of the process. Adapting the process to departmental needs increases the likelihood of employee engagement and ownership, and long-term success.
Don’t become complacent – Even though the basic principles of BBS never change, exposures do. Great systems keep up to date with the latest ways to manage risks and measure process quality. They evolve to address exposures that typical systems can overlook, like those with serious injury and fatality potential. They identify training needs and integrate activities with other important safety initiatives, such as the creation and promotion of life-saving rules, more effective incident reporting, and procedure improvement. They leverage the latest technology to track data using smart phones and display the information in ways accessible to workers, line leaders, and front office personnel.