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?