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Behavior-based safety (BBS) is the ”application of science of behavior change to real world problems”.[1] BBS “focuses on what people do, analyzes why they do it, and then applies a research-supported intervention strategy to improve what people do”.[2] At its very core BBS is based on a larger scientific field called Organizational Behavior Analysis.[3]

To be successful a BBS program must include all employees. This includes the CEO to the floor associates. To achieve changes in behavior a change in policy, procedures and/or systems most assuredly will also need some change. Those changes cannot be done without buy-in and support from all involved in making those decisions.

BBS is not based on assumptions, personal feeling, and/or common knowledge. To be successful, the BBS program used must be based on scientific knowledge.

A good BBS program will consist of:

  • Common goals — Both employee and managerial involvement in the process
  • Definition of what is expected — Specifications of target behaviors derived form safety assessments[4]
  • Observational data collection
  • Decisions about how best to proceed based on those data
  • Feedback to associates being observed
  • Review

All of the BBS programs reviewed included multilevel teams. Some programs use them in the assessment phase, some in observation and some in review. Some had all three areas using multilevel teams.

Behavior based safety must also have attitude adjustment to be sustaining. It has been proven that “behavior influences attitude and attitude influences behavior”.[5] The goal should be small gains over and over again; continuous growth. BBS is not a quick fix. It is a commitment.

There are numerous programs on how to implement behavior-based safety programs. They vary in price, detail and commitment. But the goal is always the same: eliminate injury. A review [6] of all scientific publications on Behavior-Based safety since the mid 1970's to date shows that different approaches exert different effects. Focusing on workgroups, in static settings was demonstrated to be the most efficient at behavior change and injury reduction.



Behavior-based safety is a topic that has been around for a long time. BBS originated with the work of Herbert William Heinrich. [7]. In the 1930s, Heinrich, who worked for Traveler's Insurance Company, reviewed thousands of accident reports completed by supervisors and from these drew the conclusion that most accidents, illnesses and injuries in the workplace are directly attributable to "man-failures," or the unsafe actions of workers. Of the reports Heinrich reviewed, 73% classified the accidents as "man-failures;" Heinrich himself reclassified another 15% into that category, arriving at the still-cited finding that 88 percent of all accidents, injuries and illnesses are caused by worker errors. [8]

Heinrich’s data does not tell why the person did what they did to cause the accident, just that accident occurred. BBS programs delve into the act that cause the accident. It delves into the work place; environment, equipment, procedures and attitudes. (6)

Basic Organizational Behavior Analysis is what is used to identify the actions that put the associate in the risk position. Organizational Behavior Analysis has been done for 100 years. Directing the applied research to an organizational application specifically to safety has been going on for around 20 years. (3)

Heinrich published work describing the results that he derived by evaluating the accidents from an extensive data base compiled by the insurance industry.[7] He came to the conclusion that roughly 90% of all incidents are caused by human error. This conclusion became the foundation of what BBS has come to be today. BBS addresses the fact that there are additional reasons for injuries in the work place; environment, equipment, procedures and attitudes. Behavioral Science Technology (BST), pioneers in applying BBS processes, expanded on this work and identified the "working interface", the point where exposure to injury occurs.

Basic Organizational Behavior Analysis has been done for 100 years. Directing the applied research to an organizational application specifically to safety has been going on for around 20 years.[3]

The phrase “behavior-based safety” (BBS) was coined by Dr. E. Scott Geller of Safety Performance Solutions in 1979.[9] It then became the catch phrase of the safety systems industry.

Traditionally BBS has been used in industrial settings. A new generation has found success using BBS is office/lab settings as well.[7]. More recent work has also applied this to MRSA in acute Intensive care wards in hospitals [10].

Dr. Luis López-Mena, Professor of Work Psychology at the University of Chile, has developed a BBS system, his PTAS Method (Psychological Techniques Applied to Safety). The PTAS Method has five steps:

  • Identify target behavior
  • Behavior measurement
  • Functional analysis
  • Intervention
  • Evaluation and follow up

However, this approach is no different than most.

How Behavior-based Safety Works

1. Observation at site Behavior-based Safety (BBS) process depends on site observation. Site observation include individual feedback, which is the most effective act in the BBS process. The observer meets the worker at site and introduces himself and the job he is going to do. There is no sneaking or spying in the process. The observer monitors the worker and notices his safe behaviors. He also, monitors the At-risk behaviors the worker is putting himself in. The observer starts his feedback by commending the safe behavior the worker was doing during his work. Then he explains, one by one, the At-risk behaviors the worker was doing. Then the observer asks the worker why he was putting himself at risk. For example, if the worker is welding a piece of metal and the sparks are flying in the worker's direction. The observer would then ask the worker why he was not wearing protective clothing, like a flame-retardant apron. They both discuss the at-risk behaviors until the worker agrees to try the suggested recommendation made by the observer. The worker might be aware of his at-risk behavior or maybe not. The worker may be doing the at-risk behavior for long time without hurting himself (negative consequences). The Observer’s job here is to highlight this behavior, then explains the associated negative consequences with this behavior. The above discussion and agreement is the individual feedback which helps the worker to change his behavior. This feedback is considered as a form of reward since: The worker got commendable comments on his safe behavior.

  • The worker * understood his at-risk behavior without being reprimanded at site or reported to his superiors for further penalties.

At the end of the observation, the Observer would fill in a checklist with the safe and at-risk behaviors he noticed along with the date, time and location of the observations. The worker’s name or identification number are not noted in the checklist. Part of the check list can be used to summarize the observation process and the discussion. The worker's comments and reasons for the at-risk behavior is recorded along with the suggested safe behavior. Recording this interaction is important for a later detailed analysis by the site steering committee. See BBS business process model for further information.

2. Data gathering and preliminary reports Observation checklists are gathered and entered in electronic database. Reports are generated for BBS steering committee to analyze and recommend practical solutions. These reports flag out trends of at-risk behaviors and in which location they are taking place.

3. Report analysis and recommendation The steering committee is made up of high-level influential members and chaired by Management Representative. The committee has periodical meetings to discuss and analyze BBS report findings. The committee then produces a set of recommendations to tackle workers’ behavior. Some of the recommendations would be as simple as providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to workers in certain location, or increase work force in another location. Some of the recommendations require site modification or costly machinery. Such recommendations are sent to top management for necessary approvals. Implementing the recommendations would change the at-risk behaviors at the targeted location. Also the recommendations would eliminate hazards and risks caused by hardware or wrong design. Committee members devoted time and effort to discuss and analyze these reports in periodical meetings. These meetings are counted as part of the management commitment to the behavior process.[11]


Donald J. Eckenfelder[12] stated that he felt that “BBS has virtues but lasted too long and cost too much.” He felt that it has been used incorrectly turning the process into a hindrance instead of a help. His analogy was “Water is essential to life: if we fill our lungs with it, it becomes poison.”[12] Some think that BBS has outlived its usefulness. In fact, some feel that BBS “isolates safety instead of integrating it.” (But no examples were given.) It is felt that the continuous inspection is not causing attitude or behavior shift and once it is discontinued, all bad habits come back.[12] (Again this could be true if the program doesn’t include addressing attitude.)

In response to such claims from Unions and others, Prof. Dominic Cooper ,[13]. of BSMS Inc published an article based on a survey of 247 companies implementing Behavior-based safety (or behavioral safety). This revealed that no evidence had been put forward to support these critical assertions. Rather, the evidence overwhelmingly points to positive outcomes. Interestingly, over 92 percent of respondents wanted to work in a company using Behavior-based safety. A recent update available at with 1404 responses further supports the usefulness of behavior-based safety in reducing injury causing incidents.

Notes and references

  1. ^ Staff. “How Does Behavioral Safety work?” Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies. <>
  2. ^ Geller, E. Scott (2004). “Behavior-based safety: a solution to injury prevention: behavior-based safety “empowers” employees and addresses the dynamics of injury prevention.” Risk & Insurance.15(12, 01 Oct) p 66
  3. ^ a b Matthews, Grainne A. “Behavioral Safety from the Consumer’s Perspective: Determining Who Really Provides Behavior safety.” Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. <>
  4. ^ Sulzer-Azaroff, Beth. “Safe Behavior; Fewer Injuries.” Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies.
  5. ^ Geller, E. Scott (1998). Working Safe: How to help people actively care for health and safety. Lewis Publishers
  6. ^ Cooper, Dominic., (2007) Behavioral Safety Approaches: Which are the most effective. <>
  7. ^ a b c Al-Hemoud, Ali M., Al-Asfoor, May M. (2006) “A behavior based safety approach at a Kuwait research institution.” Journal of Safety Research, 37 (2) pp 2001-2006.
  8. ^ SEMCOSH Fact Sheet: Behavior Based Safety (2004)
  9. ^ Atkinson, William (2005). “Behavior-based safety.” MC (Manufactured Concrete) Magazine May/June. <>
  10. ^ Cooper, M.D. Farmery, K, Johnson,M., et al., (2005). "Changing Personnel Behavior to Promote Quality Care Practices in an Intensive Care Unit", Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management,1,(4), 321-332. <>
  11. ^ Malallah, S. (2008). CHANGING WORKERS’ BEHAVIOR: Research – Methodology – Implementation. Kuwait.
  12. ^ a b c Eckenfelder, Donald J.(2004) “Behavior Based safety: a model poisoned by the past; based on obsolete thinking, behavior based safety.” Risk & Insurance 15 (12) pg 65
  13. ^ 'Cooper, M.D. (2003) Behavior Based Safety Still A Viable Strategy', 'Safety & Health' April, pp 46-48.

An article was published in the ASSE Magazine,Professional Safety, Sep. 1999 by Thomas A. Smith, "What's Wrong with Behavior Based Safety" that presented the case against BBS. Basically Mr. Smith attacked the theory of BBS which is based on Behaviroism. He cited research that repudiated BF Skinner and cited Alfie Kohn's book "Punished by Rewards" BBS relies on a psychological theory long disproven. In the article he said:

"Many of the articles that defend and advocate behavior-based safety point out the enormous amount of research substantiating it. They do not mention the large amount of scientific research that refutes it.

A major problem with behavior-based safety is the fact that when behaviorism was held up to the scrutiny of the scientific method it failed.

“As behavior research accumulated it was apparent to even the most ardent followers of the theory that the animals being studied frequently acted in ways the theory couldn’t explain. [2]

One major problem was different animals failed to conform to supposedly universal principles of conditioning. Skinner said “Pigeon, rat, monkey, which is which? It doesn’t matter,” but it did matter. The researchers found they could easily train a pigeon to peck at a disc for food but it was next to impossible to get it to flap its wings for the same reward. They could also get rats to press a bar for food but to get a cat to do it was quite a different matter. There were just too many comparable findings in their research that forced behaviorists to admit that each species had its own built-in processes that made it learn some things easier than others and some things not at all. Their own research showed the laws of learning could not be applied universally.

Behaviorism denies internal processing that goes on in human beings. The behaviorist research could not explain for example the behavior in rats when at the beginning of an extinction trial an animal would respond to the stimulus with more vigor than it had during a long series of reinforcements. If a rat that had been getting a food pellet each time it pressed a bar was deprived of the pellet, it would press the bar with more force repetitively. The strict behaviorist theory predicted that the absence of the reward should have weakened the response, not strengthened it."

Basically BBS focuses on fixing the unsafe actions of workers which are a result of the system they work in, not the other way around. The article can be obtained at:

Additional reading [1]

Krause, Thomas R. Leading With Safety. Hoboken, NJ, Wiley Publishing Company, 2005.

Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies. [2]

Dell, Geoff (1999). “Safe Place vs. Safe Person: A Dichotomy, or Is It?” Safety Science Monitor 3, Article 14, Special Addition.

Galloway, Shawn (2008) "Critical Questions to Improve Behavior Based Safety" Safety Culture Excellence. [3]

Geller E. S. The Psychology of Safety: How to Improve Behaviors and Attitudes on the Job. Radnor, PA, Chilton Book Company, 1996.

Hartford Loss Control Department (2002). “About Behavior-Based Safety Management.” The Hartford Loss Control Tips, Technical Information Paper Series. TIPS S 520.019.

Lopez-Mena, L. (1989) Intervencion psicologica en la empresa (in Spanish)Barcelona: Martinez Roca Ed. (see also [])

Mathis, Terry (2005) "Lean Behavior-Based Safety - How the Process is Evolving to Survive in Today's Economy" Occupational Hazards. [4]

Quality Safety Edge. BSN 2009 (Behavioral Safety Now). [5]

Safety Culture Excellence. [6]

Vinas, Tonya (2002). “Best Practices – DuPont: Safety Starts at the Top.” 1 July. [7]

Wilson, Larry (2007) BEHAVIOR BASED SAFETY "The Construction Industry Experience" [8]

Cooper, Dominic (2009) 'Behavioral Safety: A Framework for Success'. [9]



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