The Contributing Factors of Behavior-Based Safety Failures

EHS Today - March 2011
By: Shawn M. Galloway
Printable Version

Whether you like it, love it, or have never heard of it, behavioral safety processes have now created value and controversy for thirty years. Multiple methodologies argue for a dominant position in the marketplace resulting in confusion, closely held secret magical formulas, and strengthening an often dangerous resolve to do-it-yourself.

It is hard to decipher which approaches (methodology vs. home-grown) have created sub-optimized results, or in some case, failures. Both equally often result in substantial barriers to future attempts. With the experience of partnering with hundreds of organizations to break past these previously established barriers, it is hopeful that this article will provide some insight into commonly-found misconceptions and approaches. This will enable you to ensure your path leads to positive transformation, rather than failure.

Forced Effort or Involvement
Behavioral safety processes that force involvement typically result in "voluntolds" teams and less than desirable levels of engagement and safety improvement. Unless you are among the very few, how much passionate and willing discretional energy do you provide to paying your taxes every year? If a person is working towards an accomplishment because they have to, rather than want to, expect efforts that achieve minimal expectations, rather than efforts that work toward exceeding them.

This is also true when organizations require a certain number of observations to be accomplished by every employee. Individuals that do not want to be involved might not leave the person being observed with a positive experience, thus perpetuating further negativity towards the process. Remember this principle: Forced change is almost always temporary. When you and the force go away, so does the change.

A "Gotcha" Approach
Several processes either do not announce the observation or do not ask permission to conduct an observation of common practice. These processes have the misguided impression that spying is a better approach to see true common practice. Clandestine Human Intelligence is often a necessary function within governments against other governments. It is not a tool to create cultures that break the "Us vs. Them" mentality and work together to be excellent in any areas of operational performance.

The effective processes either ask permission or, at minimum, announce the observation to make those to be observed aware. The goal is to see if it is possible to take vital precautions. If it is, and we are certain these precautions represent what safe looks like, then encourage the person to continue taking the specific precautions. If they are not being taken, find out why.

Information Used for Discipline
Behavior-Based Safety processes that are effective collect insightful information into common practices of work activities. This insight helps determine how to help people work as safely as possible. How is your data used? Some processes have resulted in employees receiving discipline for activities observed during behavioral observations. This is often a gray area in many processes and requires careful consideration.

Organizations need safety rules; and they receive mandates for, and are held accountable for, enforcing these rules. This responsibility, however, often lies with those in levels of management. This is why many effective processes ask employees to conduct the behavioral observations, while asking the supervisors to play a very specific customized support role, based on the trust levels within the organizational culture. These effective employee-led behavioral processes focus on discretional behaviors, and the management systems focus on the mandatory behaviors. (There are also opportunities to teach the observation and coaching skills to supervisors to become safety coaches; however, take care to ensure the processes are separated if trust issues exist.)

Asking employees to observe for, and collect data on, both mandatory and discretionary behaviors on a checklist is fraught with complications. While the responsibility of an employee who witnesses another employee violating a safety rule doesn't go away, what are they to do if this is witnessed during an observation? My personal recommendation: tear up the card, stop the observation, and intervene. Care is needed because if employees feel they will be disciplined following an observation, how open will they be to being observed, or to performing an observation? If the answers to these questions are negative, how valuable is the process? Consider reviewing the perception of the context of measurement in your organization. Is the goal of measurements to gather insight to learn, improve, and remove all the barriers to safe performance? Or is the goal to catch people doing something wrong, hold them accountable, and place blame?

Lack of Action Plans or Visible Success
Many processes focus on the number of observations, rather than the goal of the tool: improving safety. Behavior-Based Safety is not the silver bullet or magical solution some have made it out to be. It is simply another tool in the ever-improving safety toolbox. But, this tool does serve a purpose: to gather insight into common practice and the reasons why precautions are not being taken or cannot be taken. This, then, requires the organization to act on addressing these reasons by creating action plans that either improve the process (if the insight isn't in the data), or improve safety if the influences on risks are understood.

Consider your current safety committee. How many detailed successes can you recall from memory? The average BBS steering committee or team fails to celebrate and communicate their results. If the team is not creating action plans that are data-driven, completing the action plans, and celebrating their successes, will they be perceived as successful? Who desires to join teams viewed as ineffective? Work to create an environment where anyone approached can recall three successes of the Behavior-Based Safety efforts. Consider expanding this to other teams in safety. If we want employees to volunteer for efforts to improve safety, they have to feel that they are joining, if not a winning team, at least one that is giving it their all.

Unfocused or Mis-focused Efforts
Observations are often performed because there is a requirement to perform them. If people feel the only thing that is measured or reinforced is the number of observations, obtaining observations will not be your problem. Safety improvement will be. If we recognize that the aforementioned goal of BBS is to improve safety, than why are we observing for the sake of observing? Why do we still blanket observations on any day of week, time of day, tenure of employee, tenure on task, trained vs. not trained, icy vs. humid, etc.?

Regretfully, many processes are still observing far too many behavioral precautions. A significant amount of brain science has proven that a focus beyond four to seven items is not a focus. For further insight into this, read, "Why We Fail To See Risk", published January 2011, EHS Today. If you have to rely on your checklist to "shape behaviors," you are using the most expensive and unsustainable resource available.

Retention & Internalization Is an Afterthought
Far too many methodologies rely on implementation approaches that create a dependency on the external consultant. (Disclosure: I am a consultant.) I do, however, have a firm belief that if a company is to achieve sustainable performance in safety, then tools and capability critical to facilitate this need to be owned by the company. While this might not always be practical, it is a realistic necessity.

As many organizations are fighting their way out of the recent global recession, a realization emerged. When companies were unable to make royalty payments for intellectual property, software payments, or training materials fees, their safety performance suffered. Work aggressively to ensure the tools necessary to achieve and sustain safety culture excellence are internalized, not externalized. Seek out new ideas that can be retained, yet internalized into the structure, to ensure evolution towards the desirable performance.

Expecting Miracles
The goal of a behavioral process is to provide simple strategies that people can internalize as quickly as possible, and to remove the obstacles and barriers to safe performance. Behavioral safety tools are primarily focused at adults. Adults have experienced many things in life that provide a framework for decision. We cannot expect to change that framework over night.

Please ignore any dangerous advice that states a predetermined amount of experiences that change behaviors. Behaviors happen for a reason. Often we are too close to the issue to see the true reason. Why do most global citizens drive on the right and others on the left? Sometimes we do something because this is the way we know. Changing this perpetuated belief and action is much more difficult than a checklist and a few "voluntolds". Still, realizing this difficulty, we must not give up. We just need to first recognize the difficulty if we are to be successful.

Stopping at Behavior
Simple, well-intended, yet incorrect, statements like, "Accidents are caused by unsafe acts," are just the beginning. Prepare yourself; behaviors are not the root cause of accidents or incidents. There is a common quip among some safety professionals, "What is the root cause of all slips, trips and falls? Gravity!" When someone experiences one of these types of events, incident investigations with minimal effort result in a finding that focuses on employee behavior as the root cause and follow-up action plans such as: "Pay attention", "Employee needs to be aware", "Employee needs to not be distracted", or the all too often unrelated one: "Employee needs more training".

People do things for a reason, however, many investigations end at employee behavior because the reason cannot be determined, or is frankly not sought out. If your goal is to change or improve performance in another, you have to engage the individual in discussions to learn the reason(s) for the lack of performance. Very few employees go to work with then intentions to become injured. Most are doing their job the way they know how, or might be motivated to accomplish, or demotivated to avoid a certain outcome. The key principle here is to look past the behavior; find why the activity is occurring for sustainable improvement. The best ideas are abundantly available if you keep your ears open.

Shawn M. Galloway is the CEO of ProAct Safety and co-author of several bestselling books. As an award-winning consultant, adviser, leadership coach and keynote speaker, he has helped hundreds of organizations within every major industry to improve safety strategy, culture, leadership and engagement. He is also the host of the highly acclaimed weekly podcast series Safety Culture Excellence®.
For more information, call (936) 273-8700 or email

Subscribe to our newsletter