Even with good compliance measures and safety systems in place many companies still see their safety performance fall short of their objectives—sometimes far short. In light of this frustrating phenomenon, many leading safety practitioners have adopted “behavior” as their watchword. Get employees to perform the “right” behaviors, the thinking goes, and you virtually ensure that safety improves. The difficulty has long been how to achieve the kind of sustained engagement that works with, not against, the employee, complements existing safety efforts, and produces long-term results. Used along with good engineering and administrative controls, behavior-based safety can be a powerful tool for achieving continuous improvement in safety performance.

Why focus on behavior? For years there has been a pervasive train of thought that divides accident and injury causation into one of two categories. The thinking is that an accident is either worker-related, meaning the incident was caused by individual choice or error, or facilities-related, meaning the cause was maintenance, equipment design, and so on. This thinking is evident in the many safety systems designed around one factor to the exclusion of the other. In actuality, this “either/or” causation is a false dichotomy. Exhaustive injury analysis that looks at a variety of organizations across industries over a period of several years will show that in the great majority of cases the cause of the injury lies in the interaction between the worker and the facility and/or procedures. The interaction of these factors—conditions, management systems, and what people do—is called the working interface.

Behavior-based safety (BBS) is concerned with assessing the working interface by using what people do, or their behavior, as the starting point for improving the whole system in which people work. Such a safety method looks at how the work is done, not because the worker is to be blamed, but because real safety improvement doesn’t happen by focusing on the way things are “supposed to be.” Real improvement happens by understanding and improving how things actually occur in the workplace. This means identifying and defining, in operational terms, the critical interfaces associated with how the equipment is used or how procedures affect risk. Behavior-based safety that focuses on the working interface allows organizations to pinpoint where they need to direct improvement resources in advance of any incident. Among the more than 1500 sites that have used this approach, improvement averages 25-45% in the first year, with improvements increasing in subsequent years.

Applied behavior analysis. In an organization that is stuck in the “false dichotomy” of either/or accident causation, you’ll often hear things such as “If only employees would listen, then they wouldn’t get hurt,” or “If only they would fix that equipment then we wouldn’t be having these injuries.” The BBS approach allows you to delve into the working interface to find out what is really going on. The tool that can help you understand this interaction is applied behavioral analysis.

Applied behavior analysis—also known as ABC analysis—works on the principle that antecedents set the stage for behavior and consequences encourage or discourage the repetition of the behavior. Do you answer the phone because it’s ringing (antecedent) or because there is someone on the line who you want to talk to (consequence)? What if every time the phone rings there were no one there—wouldn’t you stop answering the phone? Antecedents influence behavior to the degree that they predict consequences. However, many organizations spend considerable time and other resources on antecedents like signs, posters, and training, instead of identifying and fixing the consequences that support or discourage safe behavior. Successful BBS initiatives use applied behavior analysis to understand the data they collect on the working interface – and to map out how best to improve it.

Four key elements. In order to accurately measure and intervene in the working interface, BBS initiatives rely on four steps: identifying the critical safe behaviors, gathering data, ongoing feedback, and removing barriers.

Identifying critical behaviors – In this step, a steering team reviews a representative selection of the site’s incident reports looking for the behaviors critical to safe performance. It’s common for the team to discover 20-35 behaviors that are implicated in 90-95% of recent incidents. Wage-roll team members, who are most familiar with the daily risks of the job, will sometimes identify additional behaviors that may not be implicated in incident reports but that they know to be critical to worker safety. Committee members then define each of the identified behaviors in operational terms and categorize them for inclusion in a data sheet. Operational definitions might focus on areas like pinch-points, line-of-fire, eyes-on-path, and 3-point-contact on ladders or stairs or scaffolding.

Gathering data – Trained observers use the data sheet to measure the level of exposure to risk in the workplace. The operational definitions not only provide an objective measure of safe performance, they help foster a new common vocabulary for safety. While many sites train supervisors in behavior-based observation procedures, the observer corps at most sites is made up primarily of wage-roll personnel who perform regular observations of their peers, after which they provide performance feedback.

Providing ongoing feedback – After gathering data, observers have informal discussions with their co-workers about the safe and at-risk behaviors they observed. The observer points out the places were the employee was performing safely—providing success feedback—and tries to discover the reasons behind any observed at-risk behaviors. The observer records co-worker suggestions—without recording the employee’s name—and ideas about barriers to safe work. Data recorded in the observation is then analyzed by computer software. Posted reports and charts of workgroup performance provide additional ongoing feedback.

Removing barriers – Perhaps most critical to improving the working interface, barrier removal uses observation data to target those areas where workers are exposed to risk. The steering team uses the observers’ written comments to identify the number and kinds of remedies needed. Keeping in mind that the pool of exposure comprises three categories of behavior—enabled, non-enabled, and difficult—the BBS steering team can tailor interventions appropriately. In the case of enabled behaviors, or those that are easily within the control of the worker, the team may rely on ongoing feedback or training sessions to increase the occurrence of safe behavior. In the case of non-enabled, or those that are impossible for the worker to perform, and difficult, or those that require extra effort, the team will work with management to remove barriers in systems or equipment that are exposing workers to risk.

Roles for every level. Successful BBS initiatives engage all levels of the organization in safety support and success. Front-line employees – In many organizations, BBS offers the first real opportunity for front-line employees to contribute to safety. Typically front-line employees are responsible for running the process, from conducting observations to running meetings to data analysis and action plan completion. Successful organizations ensure that key individuals have adequate training for their role. This training typically consists of interaction skills and behavior-based principles for observers and more specific time management and organization skills for team facilitators.

Supervisors and team leaders – Supervisors have the most influence over day-to-day activities that affect performance outcomes. While some sites do allow supervisors to conduct observations, most have supervisors take a supporting role, providing work coverage so employees can conduct observations, and assisting in barrier removal action plans. Some organizations are providing supervisors and team leaders with training in performance management skills to help them work with employees to meet overall safety objectives.

Senior leaders and managers – Research shows that one of the most critical factors in the success of BBS is leadership. Through what they choose to focus on and how they go about doing the things they do, leaders telegraph what’s really important to the organization. Typically not engaged in on-the-floor observations or barrier removal, senior leaders can still set the stage for BBS success by fostering a healthy organizational culture. Site managers can get more directly involved by becoming process champions or by helping with action plans to remove barriers to safe behavior. Many leaders and managers are also engaging in directed coaching that helps them leverage their actions for optimum effect throughout the organization.

Done well, BBS offers organizations a powerful tool for safety improvement by enabling site employees to measure and intervene in the working interface. While it offers many powerful benefits, BBS isn’t a silver bullet. It requires hard work, careful planning, and a balanced approach. But with good execution and the right tools, BBS can become an important part of your approach to overall safety excellence.

Spigener is the vice president of Behavioral Science Technology, Inc. (BST), and Fisher is BST’s managing editor.