For those who have been under a rock for the last near decade or so, Behavioural Based Safety (BBS) is an approach to safety that focuses on workers’ behaviour as the cause of most work-related injuries and illnesses. I consider that people that swear by BBS programs are under a similar rock just a few metres away.
Over the last quarter of a century we have learnt much about the roots of human failure. There are many of us that challenge the commonly held belief that incidents and accidents are the result of a ‘human error’ by a worker on the ‘front line’. Attributing incidents to ‘human error’ has often been seen as a sufficient explanation in itself and something which is beyond the control of managers. This view is no longer acceptable to society as a whole as there is wider acceptance of other factors, including technical and organisational, that lead to a final result. Yet the most recent plane crash in Russia captured on video as it ploughed into highway bridge had reports that same day that stated ‘possible causes were being explored, including pilot error…’ serves nothing more but to propel the belief that human error is the cause of incidents still.
At its core, BBS programs are about observing others’ behaviours and actions which are essentially driven by a series preceding factors already in play. Principally, BBS programs only serve to actively promote that incidents are caused by one event i.e. stop ‘unsafe’ behaviour then you will stop an incident from occurring. Research shows that a sequence of events and many factors lead to incidents. By observing what workers are doing, it places the spotlight on the worker even if the program tries not to; it still propagates the myth of the error-prone worker.
The scary part of BBS now is that it is a commercial enterprise which is marketed and pitched to industries. I was only asked the other week of what I thought of a few programs that a mining site were considering as a part of implementing a BBS program. Programs such as DuPont’s STOP For Each Other and MATES (My Approach Towards Everyone’s Safety) are about identifying unsafe behaviours and the causes of this behaviour being unsafe people. Businesses look to these programs as the next thing to reduce their injury frequency rates because they believe that unsafe people are the problem, or because that is what the big boys are doing so it must be good. They shoe horn all their cultural factors, risks and people into a one size fits all program because for some they have purchased a multi-award winning program and hope for the best.
Traditional BBS programs will not give any information about the inherent dangers in a work process as the focus is on worker behaviour, it will not give information on how a poor design did not take into account human performance during its life-cycle or how the Board of Directors or managers have ensured sufficient resources for optimised working conditions, about how production is designed, how the workplace is organised or arranged.
Unfortunately BBS programs often improve safety, in the short term, because nothing else was being done before. But where the focus remains on the worker and not risk and prevention, incidents will manifest with greater severity in time and still the worker will be blamed and the cycle continues.
When BBS programs evolve to ask and answer the question as to “why” the worker is behaving and taking action in that way to complete a task, will we then start focusing on how to better develop methods and controls that take account of strengths and weaknesses in human performance?
Hi Shane, Yes agreed. It is obviously a fairly mediocre approach.
Shane, To add a little more. Many harmful products when well marketed are consumed to excessive degrees. Think junk food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc. The success of these things depends largely on clever advertising to a gullible audience. The ongoing demise of education in the safety sciences in Australia has a lot to do with the market’s receptiveness to slick promotions.
Thanks John for your comments which are welcomed as always and enjoy the view taken. They have some catchy names for some of these programs at present that’s for sure. I do also think BBS has been through devolution as a result of having peer on peer programs coming into play in recent years. I’m sure that the intention in the original theory of BBS was quite sophisticated and it has been watered down to fit the simple view of human error. It should never be expected that workers have an understanding of human factors, psychology or a firm grasp of root cause analysis especially where some of these BBS training programs are run over a relative short period of time.
Hi Shane, I totally agree with what you are saying here. I think some organisations are seeking the easy way out, as it is probably cheaper to classify incidents as human error, than to complete an intensive investigation of the other non-human factors involved.
Having almost been convinced by a Client a long time ago to go with a well-known BBS I stopped and had a good long think about the whole issue of human behaviour. Five years later I had learned that the question is ‘why is that specific unsafe act being performed, or allowed to be performed. What is it in the process design that requires it. If we don’t go in there and fix the process/syste, issue then trying to modify the human behaviour element is pointless. A further observation I would offer is that there isn’t much else we have to deal with other than each other’s behaviour. Often if you suggest to a line manager that the process is the problems they will tell you whete to stick your head; so it becomes a ‘management behaviour’ (failure to understand process analysis). You can take the behaviour perspective all the way to the Top (The BP Gulf of Mexico disaster), what kind of thinking and behaviour created the culture that permitted it? BBS programmes don’t go there at all. If you talk about doing a root cause analysis that’s often where we end up if we do them diligently.
Hi Andy. Great points you make and Prof Andrew Hopkins (ANU) wrote a paper several years ago about BBS and pretty much said that BBS programs, if any, should look up, not down. Further to your observations, I believe that after the initial success of BBS program implementation in an organisation, people start to put on a show when being observed, they are performing to the system, the process, and all its faults. As you have rightly said if they were to speak up about a process issue they will encounter more resistance as it is easier to update a procedure or replace a resisting worker than to redesign a process. After the show has been performed workers will deviate to counteract process issues.
Are BBS programs that prevalent in Australia?
Hi Mike. I’d like to say its basically a safety based plague here. I can honestly say that nearly every resource based site belonging to a major company would have a program in place. Lets hope it doesn’t infect the rest of the world.
Andy et al,
I think the BBS advocates were allowed a foot in the door in Australia because safety professionals and regulators did not pay sufficient attention to addressing hazards through the “system of work”. We had that option since 1985 in Victoria but there were other more pressing hazards to deal with and I don’t think the organisational thinking had come into the OHS world at that point.
Well written… Many companies think BBS is one shop/stop solutions to all issues. They forget Management systems, Safety conditions and above all Leadership commitment and involvement. A few weeks back, as a Safety consultant (HESS Change Agent I call myself) I was called to implement BBS, I flew 2hrs, knowing fully well despite the BIG name, the company got to have issues wrt to culture, Systems, programs, procedure and way to work. So I went prepared with Radar chart for them to self assess!! NO wonder the issue are so much BBS implementation is a good few months away!!
The sad part is so called famous companies that sell such solutions in their usual sales pitch portray BBS as one in all end solutions…….. They have been getting away royally!!! Hmmmm….
North Korea – the last bastion of BBS!
Despite many advances in the field of psychology, which includes psychoanalysis, behaviourism, cybernetics, evolutionary psychology, neuroscientific imaging and neurochemistry, it would take a bold person to claim our self understanding, with the forlorn hope of an existence free of inner and outer conflict, is now greater than that of Montaigne and Shakespeare.
We owe incomparably more to improved sewerage than to psychology – Theodore Dalrymple (Admirable Evasions)