The BS About BBS

EHS Today - February 2020
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

Saying you know about BBS (behavior-based safety) because you have been at a site that tried it is like saying you know about Germans because you once met one. The range of options available to address safety-related workplace behaviors is vastly broader than any one methodology. There is also a lot of misunderstanding about the original intentions of BBS and how it resulted in blaming workers and failed to reduce SIFs at the same rate it reduced minor accidents. Some of these misconceptions are driven by early developers of these specific BBS methodologies who tend to talk about what they intended to do rather than what they actually did.

I am reminded of this basic misconception every time someone tells me they believe or don't believe in BBS, they like or don't like BBS, or that BBS works or doesn't work. All these assertions assume that BBS is one thing that is always done the same way. If this were true then so would be the assertions. No set off-the-shelf program fits every organization and every site. But even the mainstream of BBS has significant variations in how it is done. That said, most people only know one of these programs and tend to assume all the rest are basically the same. A recent prospective client pointed out that another firm was providing more hours of training for a little lower fee, as if quantity was the only issue and that longer training must be better than shorter training. I asked a corporate safety VP recently what he thought the main difference was between BBS providers and he answered, Price!"

It logically follows that thinking all BBS processes are alike would lead to thinking that the methodologies used would be likewise similar. If this were true, all BBS processes would have similar implementation strategies, sponsorship, defined management support, governance, behavioral checklists, observation techniques, behavior-modification models, KPIs, utilization of observation data and long-term sustainability mechanisms. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Implementation models range from fully supported consultant models to internal-consultant models to train-the-trainer models to do-it-yourself models. Some BBS implementations have full-time sponsors, some have sponsorship as another task for an organizational leader, and some have worker sponsorship or no sponsor at all. Some BBS models ask managers to provide specific support and others ask managers to leave the process alone and let workers run it. Some have a steering team or committee and others have a single point-of-accountability. Some even have full-time team leaders or members who leave their regular jobs for a time to focus solely on the BBS process.

Some BBS checklists have at-risk behaviors that need to be stopped (extinguished). Other checklists have precautionary behaviors that need to be encouraged to become more regular. Some checklists are extensive with dozens of behaviors and others are as short as one or two behaviors at a time. Some sites have supervisors and/or managers perform observations and other sites strictly forbid that and have only peer-to-peer observations. Some blanket observations to everyone routinely and others have sampling strategies or rotating areas to be blitzed with observations. Some perform the same number of observations forever (or try to) while others decrease observation frequency as behaviors become more routine and habitual. Some train every worker to be an observer and ask each to perform an assigned number of observations per month. Others train everyone but only ask a certain number to actively observe, sometimes rotating observation assignments among months of the year and/or areas of the workplace. Other BBS processes utilize only a very few, highly-trained observers to perform all observations focusing on quality. Some BBS processes observe only while others observe and give feedback. Some observation processes post data and others do not.

Some BBS methodologies assume that peer feedback is all that is needed to modify behaviors while others routinely ask workers why they made behavioral choices to better understand what influences are shaping common workplace behaviors. Some teach observers performance coaching techniques to enhance their impact when giving feedback to workers. Others rely on extrinsic reinforcement such as rewards, recognition and even pay for performing observations. Some of these extrinsic motivators are aligned with new research on motivation and others are hopelessly outdated.

Although a few KPIs have become fairly common among BBS methods, most sites are still looking for meaningful leading indicators. Possibly the most common BBS metric is simply percent safe: the percentage of behaviors observed that were safe. Most other common measurements are participation metrics such as percent of targeted observations performed, percentage of assigned observers who completed their observations, percentage of steering team members attending meetings, number of workers who decline being observed, etc. Some BBS processes track the number of action plans developed from the observation data or the number of such plans that are successfully completed.

Some processes focus on the interaction between the observer and worker and discount the value of the data gathered from the observation. Others tend to value the data as an insight into workplace influences, and their action plans often address these influences rather than the checklist behaviors directly. Almost all view the percent safe from the observation data as an indicator of how effectively behaviors are being shaped and how that is impacting traditional safety lagging indicators.

Unfortunately, long-term viability and sustainability of the BBS process is an afterthought to many programs. Others build in structure and metrics to ensure leaders can navigate the process well into the future.

These variations should be no surprise when you realize that there were several early developers of the processes. Some were psychologists, some sociologists, some behavioral scientists, and some simply business people looking for the next level of safety performance. These differences manifest themselves through the levels of academic focus versus practical application in each, as well as the terminologies and behavioral models used. The most significant differences between these is whether your advisor is stuck in one model or aware of all and customizing an approach to get your organization the best fit.

Terry Mathis, Founder and retired CEO of ProAct Safety, has served as a consultant and advisor for top organizations the world over. A respected strategist and thought leader in the industry, Terry has authored five books, numerous articles and blogs, and is known for his dynamic and engaging presentations. EHS Today has named him one of the '50 People Who Most Influenced EHS' four consecutive times. Business leaders and safety professionals seek Terry's practical insight and unique ability to introduce new perspectives that lead to real change. Terry can be reached at or 800-395-1347.

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