Business Topics

When Behavior-Based Safety Isn’t Enough

Why BBS lacks effectiveness and what you can do instead

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A few decades ago, Behavior-Based Safety grew in popularity as one of the top methods for injury prevention in the workplace. By changing behaviors, some employers expected to see dramatic declines in worker injuries. Alas, they were left with thousands of dollars spent in training with little to show for the investment. Injury rates might have fallen slightly, but quickly plateaued following implementation. 

BBS is based on the following principle: At-risk behaviors are the final pathway for almost all incidents. If we can change the behaviors, we can change the outcome.

Drawing from personal experience implementing BBS programs across organizations with thousands of employees, we have identified three key areas where BBS lacks effectiveness:

BBS Involves Little to No Focus on Engagement for Problem Solving – A singular focus on behaviors first ignores why those behaviors exist in the workplace. More important than fixing behaviors is getting employees engaged in all processes. At the end of the day, engagement is the key ingredient – with all employees at all levels and in every department. The challenge with organizations is they may not know where to start and how to build trust as the foundation to engagement.

Poor Execution Significantly Decreases Effectiveness – While many would like a program such as BBS to be off-the-shelf and simple to implement, that’s just not the case. The technology related to human behavior is proven over the past 100-plus years. Where organizations struggle, or fail, is not with the technology of behavioral science, but because of poor execution. As with any truly effective system, BBS must be continually improved and adapted to meet the needs of the organization. While the model and research are proven, implementation through a wholistic approach, systems focus and leadership involvement will determine the success of the program.

BBS Focuses Too Much on Worker Behavior – Injury prevention in the workplace is not just about worker behaviors. It includes all employees, the systems and process they work within, and the efforts of leadership. Worker behaviors are only one component of the safety process and a result of many components, including the culture. The communication strategies, system design and overall commitment of leadership to the process are of equal importance to correcting workers and their exposures.

Does this mean BBS should be removed? Not necessarily. The technology and approach behind BBS can still be used but must include a focus on employee engagement. For an organization to truly adopt a culture of safety that does not accept injuries as a cost of doing business, it must initiate an ongoing approach through the following four Keys to Continuous Improvement:

Leadership – Creating an organizational culture, whether focused on safety or another aspect, begins with leadership. In any organization, leadership creates the atmosphere that drives and supports the culture. The most senior leaders must be committed to creating a culture of safety and understand what “safe” looks like. 

Employee Engagement – As mentioned before, BBS has failed previously because it focused on changing behaviors without engaging employees in the process. Engaged employees are people that are highly motivated and vested in the success of their organization. They’re the employees who are willing to make an extra discretionary effort in their daily work. Simply put, companies with higher percentages of engaged employees perform better than their industry peers. This is why we’ve adapted the approach to Engagement-Based Safety.

Sustainable Solutions – Leadership must consider how this process compounds over time. Setting realistic solutions with a focus on continuous improvement allows the process to grow. As leaders analyze the process to identify areas of improvement, be sure to allow employees to voice their opinion. The employees who are closest to the hazards are likely the ones closest to the solution.

Systems Focus – Employees can only perform as well as the systems they work within. To continually improve the organization, there must be an understanding of what drives employee actions or why exposures are not recognized. 

Behavior-Based Safety has caused controversy over the past decades due to the perceived lack of effectiveness. What we hope to communicate is not that BBS should be eliminated but the focus must shift to engaging employees – an Engagement-Based Safety approach instead of Behavior- Based Safety. Utilized as a component of a sustainable and systematic approach to safety, an Engagement-Based Safety approach can involve every worker in the process to truly reduce injuries in the workplace.

Bill Holder is the president and COO and Steve Yates is the founder and CEO of Optimum Safety Management, a safety consulting firm. It can be reached at