Click here for FREE resources for my new book: “Results.”Take Me There!
Click for my FREE 'Results' Resource Toolkit!


What is Behavior-Based Safety?

Sample Client List
by John Austin in Behavior change, Leadership, Safety, Training

What is Behavior-Based Safety?

Also known as BBS, behavioral safety, behavioral safety leadership, and behavioral-based safety…sure, we’ve heard of it but what is it really?

It was 1991, and I just started graduate school at Florida State University to learn how to apply behavior change techniques in business and eventually earn my PhD. I was disappointed to learn that they don’t just give those away!

As one of many projects I worked on during my graduate career, I was working with a roofing company with another student named John Riccobono (I know, he sounds like a mobster. But he was actually a super bright, kind, and driven guy and taught me a lot.)

…and we had developed a highly effective (but ridiculously complex) incentive plan to maximize productivity of their work crews.

The program we created ended up reducing labor costs by 64%…an improvement which the owners were quite happy with. However, during the project I noticed that the crews had some practices such as working unsafely near roof edges, horseplay atop large commercial roofs, and unsecured ladders…stuff that made us all super nervous to see…so we developed a safety program to go along with the productivity program.

That safety program we developed was my first entre into behavior-based safety. After receiving daily behavior-based feedback and earned time off for reaching behavioral goals, the work crews doubled how safely they worked! I couldn’t believe it. If you can’t either, we published that work and you can read the full article here. I’ll warn you…it’s a snoozer. Did you know that academic writing is one of the leading solutions to insomnia?

During 1990’s I personally implemented probably 60-75 BBS programs in North America in the chemical manufacturing industry.  I learned a lot during those years in the 1990’s, but the major takeaway for today’s conversation is that safety is all about leadership, not merely about peer observation and feedback. If it was as easy as giving people a checklist and forcing them to observe each other to give feedback, everyone would do it. Of course, lots of organizations try to implement BBS these days, but few do it well.

…So now, my courses, coaching, writing, and teaching are designed to get leaders like you thinking about how they can create a safer environment at work by thinking more about what they are saying and doing each day.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion held by IOSH of NE Scotland on these and other related topics entitled, “Behavioral Science and the art of applying a BBS program in your organization”. The other panelists were Bob Cummins, Duncan Aspin, and Tim Marsh.

I’ll summarize below what we discussed and share some insights I had about the topic. The video of the discussion is also linked below – it’s all free to watch.

The first question to the panelists was What is BBS (Behavior-based safety)?

In Behavior Based Safety there is a specific process to follow, (Assessment, Data collection, Defining behaviors, Observation, and Feedback – positive and corrective with reinforcement and praise). Terry McSween’s book taught me a lot about this process, and I used it in my university courses for years.

The research shows that BBS works and that there are specific techniques that bring about the changes we want, but what the science does not show is how to apply those techniques.

So we can’t just say follow steps 1-5 and you’ll get x,y,z result.  There is an art to successful deployment of BBS that is often left out. That art is mostly what I teach these days.

In some circles, BBS has gotten harsh criticism, some see it as just manipulation, a way to blame the individual… when someone gets hurt you simply blame that person for their behavior. This is clearly a bad idea and gets in the way of learning.

Dr. Tim Marsh suggests taking a holistic approach to BBS.  Use inspirational stories to raise awareness and then have good coaching conversations with the leadership. Use observation while giving the right praise. When an incident happens ask: 1. Why did it happen?  and 2. What are you going to do about it?  How do you make the change to avoid it from happening again?

BBS was started by two women in the 70’s – Beth Sulzer-Azaroff and Judi Komaki. If you’d like to read more, here are some links to resources:

Article by Beth Sulzer-Azaroff and John Austin called “Does BBS Work?”

Women have made a massive impact in the world of safety. Here is a list of books and articles by other women in safety.

Want to see the impact of a leadership approach on safety? We’ve shown that it results in 2x the injury reduction, and millions in savings. Here is a link to a case study with 500 improvement projects we coached.

Question 2 – How do you make an impact within an organization to improve the overall culture and what are the key drivers to behavior change?

  • When is the right time to start BBS?
  • Does a company need to be at a certain level of maturity before starting a BBS program?

Advice from panelists:

  • Create ownership and engagement with the workers, who are really the experts (they do the work, they understand how it all gets done.)
  • This opens the discussion of the importance of inspiring the leaders of an organization to create an environment of trust for their workforce from the beginning.
  • It can be incredibly difficult to change behavior, so the best time to start is yesterday. The sooner you begin to create or change the culture of the company, the better off you are, the sooner you will see results.

Question 3 – Do you find differences in the various types of industry when applying BBS solutions?  Do you use different tools for different industries?

Advice from the panelists:

  • There is not a big difference in changing behavior – people are people, but there is a difference in the application within an organization in the sense that there are different cultures and hierarchies that offer different levels of difficulty to break down and change.
  • Construction is more complex than manufacturing with different jobs, a constantly changing workforce and job sites.
  • Bob Cummins’ Behavior Incident Analysis Toolkit and the At Risk-Reduce Risk video is helpful with conversations and observation.

Question 4 – How do you blend BBS with the usual safety practices already used by most industries now?

Advice from the panelists:

  • Behavioral Science isn’t a separate program to implement; it’s an understanding of behavior that can be applied to anything. It will allow you to see that the method you’re using for other programs either is or isn’t going to make a difference.
  • With BBS or any other safety program, just briefing the worker on risk assessment isn’t really going to change anything. The only thing you’ve done is your own behavior of “briefing”.  To make a lasting change, you have to look at the behavior that’s happening now and figure out what to do (what to change in the environment) to get the changed behavior or result you want.

Question 5 – Can you share personal examples of safety campaigns that you’ve implemented, that have worked?

Advice from the panelists:

  • Give those that do the work, the power of making decisions.
  • Actively deal with the leadership that creates the contingencies within the company.
  • Teach BBS – Lead them to take a step -> Create an environment that reinforces those steps -> Over time that leads to massive changes.
  • Pull your team together and ask them to write down what frustrates them about work. Then take that negative passion and turn it around, use it to start getting things pointed in the right direction.

Question 6 – Are there any ethical issues around BBS and how do you deal with those issues?

Advice from the panelists:

  • Behavioral Science can be used for good or bad in manipulating people’s behavior. You must have a strong moral compass on top of teaching Behavioral Safety.
  • Always keeping in mind what is best for the individual, keeps it ethical. It should never be used in ways that hurts the person or goes against the company’s values or the individual’s morals.

Question 7 – What are the top 3 pieces of advice to develop BBS in their own organizations?

Bob Cummins:

When an injury occurs, don’t assume you know what went on in the incident – but DO assume that the person who got injured:

  1. Was trying to accomplish something for the company
  2. Did not intend to get injured
  3. Had done that same action many times before

Tim Marsh:

  1. Read “Black Box Thinking” and “Bounce” by Matthew Syed
  2. Use holistic thinking
  3. Empower the workforce the best you can

John Austin:

  1. Get a coach, find someone who you trust and who will tell you the truth.
  2. Ask more questions and learn how to ask good questions.
  3. Study – learn as much as you can about behavioral science

Duncan Aspin:

  1. Ask questions and really listen to the people who are actually doing the job with genuinely wanting to know the answer.

These days, instead of BBS implementations, at Reaching Results, I teach leaders to understand behavior so they can create their own effective tools for safety, or whatever results they choose to improve.

To learn more, connect here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.