Street-Smart Behavior-Based Safety: It's Time for the Theory to Get Real

Industrial Safety and Hygiene News - February 2002
By: Terry Mathis, ProAct Safety

Over the past seven years behavior-based safety (BBS) has grown from an interesting idea into a process being used at thousands of sites around the world. As the experience base grows, consultants and self-implementing companies can hone their skills in implementation and improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of the process. To do this, we need to take off the blinders of academic approaches and look at the reality of the work places in which we are implementing.

Almost all new technologies start off in the hands of subject-matter experts (SMEs) and then are passed on to practitioners who adapt the science into practical products for the real world. Behavior-Based Safety needs to go through this same process. The theory is proven. It's time to turn the theory into a product adapted for the business world.

For Behavior-Based Safety to move to the next level, it needs to get street-smart. The practitioners of Behavior-Based Safety need to turn their focus from the behavioral sciences to the business realities. Behavior-Based Safety needs to have terminology designed for the workers; it needs to be faster, both to start up and to begin producing results; it needs to be less expensive both in terms of internal and external resources; and it needs to be integrated into the organization.

Better Terminology
The behavioral science foundations of Behavior-Based Safety are evident in the terminology. Terms like critical behaviors, antecedents, behavior modification, conditioned response, and others are not only confusing, but sometimes offensive to workers. The very use of the term behavior suggests to workers and unions that the process focuses on individuals rather than on management, the organization or the work environment. This terminology combined with past safety efforts that have focused on discipline suggest that Behavior-Based Safety is an approach to blame workers for accidents. These assumptions are not true, but present a real challenge to change and correct them during implementation of Behavior-Based Safety.

Other terminology commonly used in the academic environment is equally troublesome. Terms such as steering committee can be less than effective in team environments. The term culture is one that is widely misunderstood and becomes the target of jokes in the workplace.

The terminology needs to work for the people using it. If workers are going to run a process, the words used need to be descriptive, comfortable, and widely understood. The connotation of words can change significantly from location to location. This means that Behavior-Based Safety process terminology needs to be examined and changed if necessary.

Faster Start-up & Results
Like many academic theories, Behavior-Based Safety was designed to create an idealistic change. This change involves behaviors and culture. The research indicates that changing behaviors and organizational culture can be very time consuming. Therefore, organizations have been asked to patiently begin the process and not expect results for months or years.

The Behavior-Based Safety process itself has taken inordinately long to implement. Groups of workers spend days in classrooms listening to college-lecture type presentations and more days developing strategies for a process they have just learned. Some steering teams are asked to wordsmith mission statements and operational definitions. Some are asked to design training for observers or briefings for managers or workers. The workers on these teams are not usually experienced writers or curriculum developers, and so they struggle with these tasks.

Many implementations seem designed to maximize consultant days on site and to sell training materials by the pound. Training techniques are typically low-tech as are data management systems. Much of the training is done in the hope of increased employee involvement and ownership. The same levels of involvement are easily attainable by having workers modify existing material rather than develop it from nothing. Street-smart trainers and consultants can drastically reduce the time required for startup while actually improving the results.

Several articles written about Behavior-Based Safety also suggested a dichotomy between "quick fixes" and "lasting results." Street-smart implementers can almost always fashion processes to attain both short-term and long-term results. In fact, "quick wins" are an important strategy to start and build momentum in any new process or program. We learned that in TQM. How did we forget it so quickly in Behavior-Based Safety? Quick wins are NOT the opposite of permanent gains. In fact, the two are inseparable parts of any well-designed organizational change initiative.

Less Expensive
As Behavior-Based Safety was implemented in more and more sites, many other providers of consulting services started to appear. This was not only because of demand, but also because of price. The average price of consulting services for Behavior-Based Safety is significantly higher than that of other consulting services. The newcomers to the market place quickly realized that they could compete with the major consulting firms precisely because of the inflated price. Companies got quotes and began to ask their insurance companies and local college professors if they could provide similar services for a lower fee. There are now probably more insurers and professors in the field than there are expertise among that group; but still the prices of consulting services are high.

The high consulting fees are only half of the equation. The other half is the use of internal resources. Startup of a Behavior-Based Safety process can involve the use of hundreds of employee-hours in training and meetings. Street-smart approaches look for economies in these activities. High-impact training and the use of modular implementation kits can greatly diminish the hours needed for start-up without reducing the effectiveness or employee ownership. These techniques are used for many other organizational activities and are well suited for Behavior-Based Safety.

More Integrated
Dan Peterson recently suggested that most safety programs are what he calls "islands of safety." They are stand-alone programs with no real connection to the rest of the organization except some shared personnel. Behavior-Based Safety is an example of such "islands." It is something else organizations do; not how they do it. Behavior-Based Safety steering teams often find themselves in competition with other safety efforts for time, manpower and budget.

Street-smart facilitators and consultants can find ways to integrate Behavior-Based Safety into the existing culture and values of the company. Behavior-Based Safety cannot change culture from outside. Cultures change themselves from within. Behavior-Based Safety must become an integrated part of the company culture and values and help to define "the way we do things around here." It is difficult to own a process that you simply lease or license from a consultant. People tend not to take the same pride in a process if it truly does not belong to them or even to their company. Street-smart implementers know that workers need to truly own a process if they are going to use it to make meaningful change.

It is time to take Behavior-Based Safety to the next level. This next level is not an academic level to be attained through research or review of the literature. It is a level discovered on the shop floor, down the production lines and in the warehouse. Behavior-Based Safety must become an applied science, integrated into the workplace, and expressed in the language of the workers.

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