Behaviour Based Safety Kit Section 1: What are Behaviour Based Safety Programs?

Behavioural Based Safety is an approach to safety that focuses on workers' behaviour as the cause of most work-related injuries and illnesses. Promoters of behaviour-based safety programs maintain that 80 - 96% of workplace injuries are caused by workers' unsafe behaviours

Where does this figure come from?

This approach to health and safety that assumes that the vast majority of injuries and illnesses are the result of unsafe acts by workers first became popular in the United States with the work of H.W. Heinrich.  Heinrich was an Assistant Superintendent of the Engineering and Inspection Division of Travelers Insurance Company during the 1930's and 1940's.       

The claim that 90% (or a similar percentage) of injuries are due to unsafe acts is a repetition of Heinrich's "research."  Heinrich's conclusion was based on poorly investigated supervisor accident reports, which then, as now, blamed injuries on workers.  He concluded that 88% of all industrial accidents were primarily caused by unsafe acts.  Companies that sell behavior-based safety programs continue to mislead clients by perpetuating this folklore.  Dupont says that 96% of injuries and illnesses are caused by unsafe acts.  Behavior Science Technology (BST) has stated that between 80% and 95% of all accidents are caused by unsafe behavior.   

Companies that cite Heinrich's "research" to justify behavior-based safety programs conveniently leave out the rest of his findings.  Anyone who reads his original work can see that another of his conclusions, "ancestry and social environment are factors in every accident" is undisguised racism and class bias!   Both findings are without merit.    Most behavior-based safety programs are fundamentally Heinrich's outdated and erroneous theories repackaged for modern marketing.   

Behavior-based safety programs appeal to many companies because they make health and safety seem simple, do not require management change, focus on workers and seem cheaper than correcting health and safety hazards.

Once the programs identify the workers who are behaving "unsafely", they are coaxed, cajoled and/or threatened into behaving "safely" on the job or sacked.

According to the UK's Health and Safety Executive, the most common Behaviour Based Safety Programs:

'require front line staff to carry out behavioural safety observations on their colleagues'.

The observers are trained, and the results are usually fed back on a one-to-one basis.  Some programs do not use one-to-one feedback, but have a group of observers counting instances of 'unsafe behaviour', collating the data and reporting back to the group, sometimes developing 'safe/model' behaviours.

Unions and others, including health and safety specialists and academics are uncomfortable with these programs because, no matter how well they disguised, the basic assumption is that workers unsafe acts are the cause of workplace injuries and disease. We can summarise our concerns into thirteen facts that a trade unionists should know about Behaviour Based Safety Programs:

  1. Observing others' behaviours focuses on the end of the chain of events that lead to a worker's actions…………..just look at any proper accident or incident investigation root cause. BBS promotes the lie that accidents are caused by one event, when all the research shows a chain of events leads to accidents.
  2. Observing workers' behaviours does not ask the questions "why" is s/he doing that job that way?; why is s/he doing that job?; why is s/he using that chemical? etc
  3. Observing others only looks at what happens often and repeatedly e.g. breakdowns,  jams or quick production runs or days when staff are short are not taken into account. These programs miss any unusual or complex unsafe events.
  4. Observing what workers are doing will not give any information about the inherent dangers in a work process. Observing someone's behaviour does not give any information about the effects of:

    1. fumes e.g. benzene which causes cancer,
    2. dusts e.g. asbestos , ceramic fibres, silica, cadmuim,
    3. epoxy resins or two part paints or hair dyes causing asthma
    4. biological hazards, infections, etc
  5. Observing workers and changing their behaviour can only change the decision making at the lower level of decision-making. It is very hard to affect the big decisions without asking "why". See 2. above.
  6. Observing workers takes lots of time and costs a lot. Over time this often crowds out other health and safety activity e.g. focussing on hazards at source and implementation of  hierarchy of control approaches.
  7. As one H&S expert1 said –  rather than these programs being the  cherry on top of a multifaceted OHS program, BBS can crowd other approaches out and end up being the poison garnish that ruins the whole dish.
  8. Observing what workers are doing, does not observe what managers or the Board are doing or not doing. Managers, owners or the Board are the ones with the power and access to resources to make the necessary changes for improved conditions. This is recognised as the duty of care in both common law and OH&S law.
  9. Observing workers working with clients cannot answer questions about factors which lead to stress e.g. fatigue, emotional pressures, anxiety, workload, decision making violence and aggression, bullying.
  10. Observing what workers are doing, tends to blame the worker, even if the program tries not to e.g. even if it is anonymous, voluntary etc. It perpetuates the myth of the careless worker.
  11. Observing workers can put worker against worker.
  12. Observing workers does not try to answer the question -  'If we moved "Bill" from this job would someone else be likely to be injured?' -  because when we focus on Bill we often cannot see beyond him. If it is possible that someone else could be injured then the problem is NOT with Bill's individual behaviour, but with the job or the system, or something else.
  13. Observing workers does not question those who make decisions about how production is designed, the workplace is organised or laid out etc. Managers, owners or the Board make those decisions.

( Note 1: Andrea Shaw, from Shaw Solutions, at an ACTU seminar on BBS, May 2005, Melbourne)

Are these programs new?

No, they are not new.  Many of these programs are based on the old approach of immediately blaming or disciplining workers when accidents/injuries occurred. Some programs still use this approach e.g. traffic light cards in the example in Section 4.4 - Background information.

Modern, new style BBS programs are sold as being just one, albeit very important, element of a broad OHS system.  The promoters of BBS say that the programs do not in any way detract from identification/assessment/control of risk. However, diversion of resources from identification/assessment and control is an outcome.

The core features of BBS programs are:

  • Observation of workers by workers
  • Extensive training provided to those participating, particularly the observers
  • Development of a list of "critical worker behaviours" often with input from workers themselves who are invited and welcomed into the process
  • Development of 'model behaviours' so that  workers' behaviours are measured against their own standards – ie past behaviours. 
  • Substantial management commitment, including financial.

Additional features include:

  • Reward systems eg. bonuses or acknowledgement of efforts and results
  • Programs are promoted as  'voluntary' and promoting participation.  The programs say in health and safety which is 'Everyone's Responsibility' not recognising who has power to make decisions.
  • Utilise and appropriate current participative and representative structures – e.g. elected H&S Reps, union delegates, OHS committees.

Many employers like the approach of BBS because the programs take the focus off what they are doing and onto watching workers. The programs often:

  • allege that 'research' and 'statistics' support their claim that up to 95% of accidents are the result of at risk behaviours; employers feel comfortable – the blame the worker' explanation. Shifting blame = shifting responsibility
  • focus attention to the micro (individual's behaviour), not the macro (risk control)
  • make workers 'take on' responsibility – the focus shifts from what the employer should do to what workers can, and should, do for themselves
  • appear to make the workplace more democratic, involve workers and empower them, but in reality disempowers workers
  • use the functioning union structures (like OHS reps and committees) – and try to 'tame' them or render them redundant
  • encourage employers to 'blame' the decision to introduce BSC program on their corporate master in the US, that it is not a local management decision. In fact, the local management claim that they are  'just part of the program' like the workers
  • provide a mechanism and a way for  workers to develop a way of disciplining fellow workers.

Behaviour Based Safety Programs, at the beginning, can look attractive to workplaces (and workers) because the people introducing the program:

  • Talk directly to workers – in language that is less technical than risk assessment language, and is easier to understand
  • Seems to make sense: it says that behaviour, or human factors, are the cause of great majority of accidents, and therefore, that these behaviours need changing, and that this system works. The programs use language such as 'ABC' which stands for Antecedents  – Behaviours – Consequences
  • Appeals to sense of what is right – it says OHS is Everyone's Responsibility and it looks like management is showing commitment
  • Involves workers and H&S Reps as there are more resources going into increased health and safety training and skills development
  • Involves workers as coaches with potential to change behaviour and participate in the decision-making processes
  • Gives recognition, encouragement and rewards, through teams, prizes or fun activities, to workers and groups of workers
  • The programs claims to:
    • be additional to all other health and safety programs/activity, not in place of 'traditional' risk assessment and control
    • address illness as well as injury
    • empower workers
    • be successful in that it targets 'unsafe' behaviour only – and can 'prove' that it works

The BBS programs often improve safety, in the short term, simply because  nothing else was being done before.  Despite their supporters' claims, these programs aim to shift the responsibility from employees and towards workers.  The programs have their origin in management practices aimed at increasing managerial prerogative and pitting worker against worker, not in H&S prevention.

The Kit can be downloaded as a pdf document here

More Items

  • BBS Kit - Section 2: What can we do?

    If your employer is looking at introducing these programs – what can you do? more

  • BBS Kit - Section 3: Exercises

    This section has a number of exercises that will help you and the members make some judgements about Behaviour Based Safety more

  • BBS Kit - Section 4: Background information

    This section contains background information from a range of different sources.  It is designed to give reps and other interested people some more in-depth information about what BBS is and some experiences of more

  • BBS Kit - Section 5: Resources

    Where to go for more information and resources on Behaviour Based Safety more