Last reviewed 23 August 2013

In this article, Nigel Bryson reviews the strengths and weaknesses of Behavioural Based Safety initiatives (BBS) and when they can deliver the most “added value” to an organisation.

During the last 15 years, BBS have become more popular in the chemical sector. However, the weaknesses in such initiatives may be overlooked. Hence, BBS initiatives need to be thought of as one possibility within a range of initiatives that can improve safety standards in the chemical sector. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published guidance (HSG217: 2001 Involving Employees in Health and Safety — forming partnerships in the chemical industry, HSE) on worker involvement in the chemical sector, which gives a wider perspective.

What are BBS initiatives?

BBS initiatives can vary. However, most are based on:

  • identifying how a task should be performed safely; this is usually done by establishing checklists based on safe working methods and procedures

  • training observers who will monitor operatives for certain periods to establish if they are following the safe working methods — from the checklists

  • recording unsafe behaviour if the operatives depart from the specified working methods, and seeking the reasons why they have deviated from the established safe methods directly with the person involved; this is used to underpin safe behaviours by giving direct feedback to the individuals concerned

  • building statistical information to allow organisations to identify trends; establish targets based on unsafe/safe behaviour ratios; have a leading indicator of safety which allows potential hazards to be spotted before an injury occurs; raise awareness of safety issues within the workforce; and help promote a positive safety culture

  • a relationship between the causes of minor injuries being similar to major injuries — the accident triangle: unsafe behaviour being the cause of about 80% of incidents.

As may be guessed, the process of seeking employee “buy in”; establishing the checklists; training the observers; providing the support structure to analyse the statistical information; and management framework to support BBS initiatives can be resource-intensive. It also requires a longer term managerial commitment. This is due to the need to embed the observations into day-to-day activity and monitor developments over time.

If an organisation is successful, the benefits have been shown to include reducing incidents, improving employee involvement, thus improving communications with supervisors/managers; and assisting in developing a positive health and safety culture. If these are the potential advantages, what are the disadvantages?

Behavioural flaws

A significant weakness in BBS initiatives is that many do not apply effectively to occupational health issues. In reviewing a range of BBS limitations (HSE Research Report 660: 2008 Behaviour change and worker engagement practices within the construction sector) researchers for the HSE identified the following.

  1. Blame culture: Probably one of the most cited weaknesses is that it can be perceived that workers are being blamed for their “unsafe” behaviour. This may mean that the BBS programme is not seen as credible. It is critical that organisations communicate with employees and/or trade union representatives to secure their acceptance of such programmes.

  2. Multi-causality: There are many incidents that have a number of underlying causes. While some individuals will contribute to their own injury, “at risk” behaviour should be seen as “a symptom of a deeper safety issue rather than a cause”.

  3. Infrequent, high-risk acts: BBS initiatives depend on analysing behaviours that are observable. Less obvious safety critical behaviour that could lead to major incidents could be missed. The concept that causes of minor injuries are the same as major incidents is open to question. Particularly for the chemical sector, if emphasis is on personal safety, process safety may be overlooked.

  4. Hierarchy of controls: Emphasis on BBS initiatives may lead to solutions such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to control unsafe behaviours rather than go through the hierarchy of controls, which starts with avoiding the risk. This is an issue trade unions are particularly critical of.

  5. Complex behaviour: BBS initiatives are more likely to be effective in relation to simple discrete behaviours, such as wearing PPE, than they are to complex behaviours.

  6. Skill-based error: BBS tends to concentrate on human error, rather than mistakes, slips or lapses — unconscious errors. Hence, the observations may not pick up other types of errors.

  7. Under-reporting: The promotion of “zero accidents”, etc and rewarding absence of unsafe behaviour has frequently been found to generate under-reporting.

With regard to the chemical sector, these potential weaknesses need to be considered. For example, in 2005, 15 people were killed and 170 injured in the explosion at the BP Refinery in Texas City. In the subsequent report on the explosion — known as the Baker Report — a number of factors were identified as contributing to the incident. Among the significant factors was: “BP has emphasized personal safety in recent years and has achieved significant improvement in personal safety performance, but BP did not emphasize process safety.”

This issue with process safety has been increasingly referred to by the HSE. In a report on behaviour safety and major hazard sites (Behavioural Safety and Major Accident Hazards: Magic Bullet or Shot in the Dark: M Anderson: HSE: 2004), the HSE commented: “However, these programmes [BBS] tend to focus on intuitive issues and personal health and safety, ignoring low probability/high consequence risks. …the causes of personal safety accidents may differ to the precursors to major accidents and therefore behavioural safety programmes may draw attention away from process safety. Furthermore, the tendency is to focus on individuals and fail to address management behaviour, thus excluding activities that have a significant impact on safety performance.”

The emphasis on employee behaviours tends to detract from those underlying causes that are within the control of managers and senior executives. Errors made by operatives may have been influenced by “training strategies, poor maintenance priorities, inadequate supervision, a failure to undertake effective hazard identification or inadequate auditing”. If observers only look at the immediate cause of an incident, underlying issues may not be recognised. In such situations, it implies that designers, engineers or managers — for example — do not make errors.

Hence, when considering BBS initiatives, the culture of the organisation and the health and safety issues that arise in specific plants and processes need careful attention. As pointed out in the HSE paper: “… operators motivated towards achieving optimal human performance will not compensate for over-riding production demands, insufficient numbers of personnel, inadequate shift patterns, inadequate process training, unclear roles/responsibilities or outsourcing of technical expertise”.

Well behaved

In promoting BBS, supporters usually highlight the three phases to get to the stage when such schemes are possible and to promote a good health and safety culture.

  1. All physical means of safeguarding process plant and equipment have been achieved.

  2. The organisation has good management systems and procedures in place.

  3. Measures for supporting employee engagement within an organisation.

Most BBS supporters stress that these measures need to be in place before behavioural initiatives can start. In other words, the culture of an organisation needs to have “matured” for a BBS initiative to add value.

While BBS initiatives have the potential to improve safety standards, they must be given careful consideration. As indicated by the BP Texas City explosion, an improved record in worker safety can lead to a false sense of security if underlying weaknesses in leadership, process safety and managerial controls are not effectively addressed.

By their very nature, BBS initiatives need to be effectively resourced, have managerial commitment over a long period, employee “buy in” and be part of an overall approach which seeks to establish a positive health and safety culture. Anything less could be a waste of valuable resources and the masking of dangerous conditions.