Environment, health, and safety (EHS) managers are always looking for ways that they can mitigate risk, take preventive action against potential hazards and incidents, and improve their company’s overall safety culture. Behavior-based safety (BBS) is an effective tool that can be put to use in achieving all of these goals.
Basically, BBS is a method of avoiding human error and improving workplace safety by observing and analyzing employees’ behavior while they work. Let’s take a look at some of the key concepts of BBS, along with actions EHS managers and professionals can take to put the concepts to beneficial use at their organizations.
Before we get started, however, we must first emphasize one thing in order to dispel a common misconception about BBS: Behavior-based safety is NOT about blaming the employee for safety mishaps. It is about positively reinforcing safe behaviors while providing corrective feedback when risky behaviors are observed.
The Basics of BBS
The guiding principle of behavioral safety is helping employees perform a job safely as the product of a series of safe behaviors. “Behavior” is defined as any action you can see someone doing, and it includes visible actions only (i.e., it does not refer to things you cannot see, such as an employee’s attitudes or thoughts). BBS helps determine why at-risk behavior occurs on the job and the steps necessary to change at-risk behavior into safe behavior.
The BBS method uses materials and activities to encourage safe behavior. For example, safety signs, training, safety rules and policies, and safety meetings are all tools that can be put to good use in a behavioral safety framework. It also uses observation of behaviors to determine whether behaviors are safe or unsafe, and it uses positive or corrective feedback on performance to reinforce safe behavior and change unsafe behavior.
BBS Starts with Selecting and Observing Desired Safe Behaviors
When putting BBS into action within the workplace, it’s important that EHS managers properly select and observe employee behavior. Behaviors selected for observation must be:
Observable (i.e., can be seen or heard),
Reliable (i.e., seen the same way by two or more people),
Something over which an employee has control, and
Described in a positive way (i.e., what should be done, not what shouldn’t be done).
Keep in mind that behavior-based safety observations must be objective—that is, based on what you actually see a person doing, not on opinions or interpretations about an employee’s performance.
To put observations into action, consider this activity. Select several safe behaviors (usually no more than five at one time) and compile them into a checklist that employees carry with them during the workday and use to spot-check for the different selected safe behaviors. If an employee observes a coworker performing a behavior on the checklist safely, a check is placed in the “safe” column. If a coworker is observed performing a behavior unsafely, a check goes in the “unsafe” column. This can take the pulse of the prevalence of safe vs. unsafe behavior on the job and help EHS professionals then provide positive feedback for safe behaviors or take corrective and preventive action for riskier behavior.
Positive Feedback Is Essential to BBS
Positive verbal feedback is a powerful way to reinforce safe behavior and a cornerstone of effective BBS. When you give employees feedback about safe behavior, be specific about what you observed.
For example, to a forklift operator you might say, “Thank you for driving slowly around that corner and using your horn to warn others.” Avoid generalizations such as, “Thanks for driving the forklift carefully.” Deliver feedback on performance immediately after the behavior or as soon after the behavior as possible.
Also, be sure to identify the person or group to whom you’re giving the feedback by name. For example, “John, thanks for mopping up that spilled water. You just prevented someone from slipping and falling and getting injured.” Avoid saying things like, “Thanks, everyone, for keeping the floor clean.”
One thing to avoid in your communication: Don’t use the word “but” or “however” when giving positive feedback, since these qualifiers diminish the effect of the positive message. For example, if you say, “Good to see you wearing safety glasses, Sally, but…” Sally may only hear the part after the “but”—not the positive reinforcement that preceded it.
Use Corrective Feedback for Risky Observed Behaviors
While we stress once more that BBS is emphatically not about blaming employees, you also must never ignore unsafe behavior—it could result in an incident, an injury, or worse. When you observe an employee engaging in unsafe behavior, you must give corrective feedback.
Corrective feedback is providing information on what an employee is doing incorrectly and also providing information for improvement. It does not merely scold employees (which could result in reactance against your efforts on their part), but instead calls attention to a specific behavior and helps increase the chances of safer behaviors in the future.
When giving corrective feedback, remember:
Be specific and focus on the correct behavior only—don’t discuss other behaviors.
Be objective and talk about the behavior, not the person.
Describe the safe behavior, and make sure employees understand why this behavior is important to their safety.
Positive Behaviors, Positive Culture
While BBS can help EHS managers pinpoint both safe and unsafe behaviors in order to prevent incidents, it also has the added benefit of improving a company’s overall safety culture. Frequent, consistent, and clear communication on safety issues such as behavior allows organizations to make safety a core part of their company values and an integral part of their overall culture.
With a more mindful approach to behavior, EHS managers, along with employees and upper management, can create an atmosphere where safety is top of mind every single day. When paired with proper tracking and analytical tools, behavior-based safety can help you ensure that employees are not only getting the job done, but doing so in a way that actively promotes health and safety.
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