Above & Beyond BBS

It shows us that safety, long considered a discrete function of one department or one target area, is actually a vital part of organizational performance.

SINCE it first rose to popularity in the early 1990s, behavior-based safety (BBS) has become an established and widely respected tool for safety improvement. While not without its critics, BBS has clearly had its successes, among them introducing new tools that allow greater precision in making improvements in safety systems and equipment. As BBS continues to evolve as an EH&S tool, many are now asking how to build on the approach for even greater effectiveness in safety management. What does the future of BBS hold for organizations currently using it, and how does the experience of the past 20 years inform our approach to EH&S going forward?

Why BBS Works
The best way to answer these questions is to start by understanding the place of BBS in the general scheme of safety management. Emerging from the establishment of OSHA in the 1970s and the refined use of management systems in the 1980s, BBS introduced a "worker focused" dimension to safety improvement. The aim was to understand why people performed the way they did within the context of the systems and conditions they used every day. The power of BBS was that it allowed organizations to expand their influence beyond plant, equipment, and procedures to the organizational and personal levels.

While there are currently many methods that go by the name "behavior-based safety," the most studied and widely used method is an integrated, interdisciplinary activity, drawing not only from applied behavior analysis, but from quality management, organization development, and safety and risk management. The four key activities are: 1) identify critical behaviors; 2) gather data on those behaviors; 3) provide ongoing, two-way feedback; and 4) remove barriers to safe behavior. Ongoing studies show that practitioners of this method produce injury rate reduction in the range of 25-45 percent in the first year up to 55-75 percent by year five.

The Lessons of BBS
As with other leading technologies, BBS has evolved over the years to become more effective, as well as more agile and adaptable by a growing range of industries, processes, and work situations. Studies of this approach have shown links between BBS initiatives and improvements in everything from culture to engagement. But perhaps more important to the safety field as a whole is what BBS has taught us about successfully creating change in an organization, particularly the role of culture, leadership, and safety as a performance leader.

Culture is manageable. In our experience helping thousands of clients implement employee-driven safety processes, we have observed that organizations can show vastly different results even when they are in the same industry and have the same site size and time in the process. In a study of these sites, it became apparent that the difference was not in the systems but in the culture of the organization itself.

High performers consistently showed characteristics such as high trust, good communication, management credibility, and organizational value for safety. The low-performing organizations showed the opposite. What is perhaps more surprising is that while the word "culture" has long had a connotation of something vague and hard to measure, the cultural factors linked to the success of BBS initiatives were not only definable but measurable. A body of research in organizational psychology identifies nine characteristics predictive of successful safety outcomes:
1) Teamwork--the effectiveness of workgroups in meeting targets and deadlines
2) Workgroup relations--the degree to which co-workers respect each other
3) Procedural justice--the level that workers rate the fairness of first-level supervisors
4) Perceived organizational support--the level to which employees feel the organization is concerned for their overall well-being
5) Leader-member exchange--the strength of relationship that workers feel they have with their supervisors
6) Management credibility--the perception of consistency and fairness of management in dealing with workers
7) Organizational value for safety--the perceived level of the organization's commitment to safety
8) Upward communication--the adequacy of upward messages about safety
9) Approaching others--the probability that workers will speak to each other about performance issues

Recognizing that a strong culture is as important as a good improvement strategy, many organizations now are including initiatives that target culture in addition to their behavior-based safety efforts. And because more is known about the specific cultural characteristics linked to performance outcomes, organizations are able to define their desired culture in specific, behavioral terms. The result is a more balanced approach that improves organizational functioning across all performance areas and that bolsters the effectiveness of BBS and other safety efforts.

Leadership is more than a cliché. In recent years, leadership has emerged as one of the most critical factors in the success of organizational change efforts--even in "bottom-up" processes such as BBS. While everyone recognizes the importance of leadership to the point of its becoming a cliché, many change initiatives continue to stall because of failures in leadership. The reason is that while many leaders understand the importance of their roles in a conceptual way, they do not know how to translate that into specific, day-to-day actions.

Through our experience with BBS, we have found there are certain management and leadership practices that recur across the organizations that have outstanding safety performance. Effective leaders have high levels of credibility, accountability, and communication; they are action-oriented and have a clear vision of how a high-performance culture works. They demonstrate high levels of feedback and recognition, as well as collaboration. In other words, good leadership is a behavior that is learnable.

As we continue our work with organizations seeking to improve their safety and overall organizational performance, we have begun to build coaching relationships with the leaders of those organizations. Leadership coaching moves the senior manager's role beyond the traditional "understand and allocate" so often advocated as a remedy for leadership inactivity to deliberate and specific actions targeted at creating a measurably stronger performance culture. Added to strong roles at the front-line employee and middle manager/supervisor level, strong leadership forms a cord of three strands that is not easily broken and enables the organization to strengthen EH&S in all areas.

Safety is foundational. Finally, our experience with BBS shows us that safety done well has broader implications for the well-being of the whole organization. In addition to being linked directly to cultural improvements such as improved awareness and conditions, BBS has shown that safety is a performance leader. Compared to other areas of group performance improvement, safety has an immediate value for all levels throughout the organization and enjoys the benefit of a nationally recognized standard of measurement.

When combined with a methodology with proven, long-term results such as BBS, safety can become a catalyst for improvement in other performance areas. Companies that succeed in BBS frequently report improved functioning in performance areas such as quality or productivity. And some management teams are purposely using BBS to lead cross-functional improvement initiatives in areas that include optimizing output, error reduction, and business system improvement.

Where Do We Go from Here?
The power of BBS was that it showed us a new way to understand accident and injury causation and gave us tools to connect people and systems in a more effective way. Just as powerful are the lessons of BBS, which show us that safety, long thought of by organizations as a discrete function of one department or one target area, is actually a vital part of organizational performance.

Organizations that capitalize on these learnings are expanding the scope of their improvement efforts into culture and leadership and are leading with safety to a stronger organization.

This article originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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