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5 Stages for Behavior-Based Safety

Behavior-based safety uses observation and feedback to reduce workplace accidents. Proponents say it’s a scientific way to identify at-risk behaviors and change them. Opponents say it smacks of Big Brother and promotes blame.

The idea that behavioral change can lead to a safer workplace is nothing new. A behavioral approach has been around for most of a century. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the term “behavior-based safety” was first used by psychologist Dr. E. Scott Geller. His company, today known as Safety Performance Solutions, has helped spread behavior- and people-based principles throughout the industry.  

“Doing things safely is the core of behavior-based safety,” says Judy Agnew, author of the book “Removing Obstacles to Safety”,  Agnew identifies five essential stages in the behavioral approach to safety.

Stage One: Pinpoint Behaviors

The first stage in ADI’s behavioral process is to identify, at every level of the organization, the critical behaviors that will prevent injuries and incidents. These behaviors are determined by analyzing accident reports and other data. After the list of target behaviors is narrowed down to a few for focused attention, these are printed onto a simple scorecard used by observers. Individual work groups have their own targeted behaviors.

The pinpointing effort should clearly describe the behavior so that it can be properly observed and measured. According to Agnew, “If you can’t take a picture of it or record it with a tape recorder, it probably isn’t a behavior.” The focus is on relatively small tasks or behaviors that can be observed in a few minutes or less.

Examples of safe behaviors to be targeted:

  • Lifting with knees bent and back straight
  • Honking forklift horns at intersections
  • Putting on the proper gloves when mixing chemicals
  • Putting on a face shield before grinding

Stage Two: Observation and Measurement

The ADI process differs from some other systems in that a small number of behaviors (maybe three) are targeted with frequent observations over a period of several weeks. Employees may be observed more than a dozen times a day by volunteer observers. The goal is to quickly establish new habits. Observers note their findings (whether the person used safe or at-risk behaviors and any obstacles) on the scorecard.

Agnew says the small number of target behaviors is a key to success. Changing behavior is challenging in any context. Trying to adopt many new habits at once and managing all the feedback is daunting.

In the ADI model, those being observed know exactly what behavior is being observed, but they don’t know the exact moment the observation will take place.

Key characteristics of the ADI observation process are:

  • The observation is anonymous and never results in punishment. 
  • Frequent observations result in a large representative sample, which is used to track progress. 
  • The findings are collected by and summarized into percentages by co-workers. Management does not see the scorecards; they only see the percentage of time the group performs the behavior safely.

Stage Three: Feedback

Agnew disagrees with those who believe that observation is the heart of a behavior-based safety process and is responsible for behavioral change. In fact, she believes it is only a vehicle for feedback and reinforcement, the two factors that ultimately alter behavior. This stage is where learning takes place.

Feedback changes during the process. At the beginning of a several-week behavior-change initiative, feedback would usually be longer and more conversational. Observer Ann might say to her co-worker John, “I noticed you weren’t wearing goggles. Is there a fogging issue or some other problem?”

Some days into the exercise, the feedback might be as simple as Ann’s thumbs-up gesture upon observing John wearing goggles. Or, if he is not wearing them, Ann might just point to her eyes to convey the message.

Because observations are conducted so frequently, it’s not practical to provide feedback on each occasion. Rather,Agnew suggests that it be offered:

  • If a worker is in imminent danger; 
  • When the worker performs the safe behavior for the first time; 
  • When a worker has made recent improvements; 
  • When a worker has been struggling to change a habit; 
  • When the safe behavior is performed in a difficult situation; and 
  • If the observer notices barriers to the safe behavior.

Stage Four: Reinforcement

Consequences, both positive and negative, drive behavior. According to Agnew, “positive reinforcement is a desirable consequence that follows a behavior and increases its frequency in the future.” In a workplace context it exists in various forms.

Self-reinforcement. This is the internal recognition experienced by an individual who is using safe behaviors and making them a habit.

Natural reinforcement. These are natural occurrences that result from the changed behavior. For example, working with better body mechanics feels better than working in a cramped, awkward position. Or a safe behavior might get the job done faster, another natural reinforcer. In the process used by Aubrey Daniels International (ADI), an Atlanta-based consulting firm, these are known as positive, immediate, certain consequences, or PICs.

Sometimes safe behaviors do not have naturally positive results. For example, wearing PPE can be hot and uncomfortable. ADI refers to these as negative, immediate, certain consequences (NICs) and seeks to eliminate them. Providing workers with more comfortable gear is one way to counter the NICs associated with wearing PPE.

Social or tangible reinforcers. These are used when it isn’t possible to “undo” the negative natural reinforcement. A social reinforcer can be a simple comment like, “We really appreciate what you’re doing to stay safe.” But managers need to be careful, says Agnew, as some people don’t like to be singled out in public, even for praise. Other social reinforcers are gestures like a smile, nod, or pat on the back; handwritten or e-mail notes; and asking for input with a question like, “How would you handle this?”

Humor. Appropriate humor during the workday is welcomed by most people and conveys a positive message.

Stage Five: Evaluation

Ultimately, behavior-based safety is a data-driven process, explains Agnew. “We teach employees at the hourly level and above to look at the data and see what they tell you.” For example, if a group sees variability in its behavior graph, they are encouraged to identify patterns and causes.

Part of the preparation for participating in behavior-based safety is training in how to read graphs, a skill some employees might not otherwise get on the job. 

This evaluation process is, of course, essential to the success of a behavior-based safety program. Examining the data often reveals important information that’s hard to see any other way.

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