Behavior-Based Vs. Values-Based Safety Leadership Programs

Some in the industry swear by them; others just as adamantly denounce them as useless.  I’m of course referring to BBS (behavioral-based safety) programs. My experience and research tells me that some of the biggest advocates of BBS programs are those who have a BBS program to sell, whether as a third-party safety-consulting company selling it to an industrial client, or (in some cases) an internal safety professional who has bought into a BBS program to improve his safety culture and now has to “sell” the effectiveness of the program to upper management.  On the other hand, some of the biggest opponents of BBS are worker-advocacy groups who seem to want to find a way to blame all injuries on working conditions rather than bad decisions and unsafe behaviors.  Both extremes are agenda-driven, which makes it harder to attach real value to either.  The truth, as is so often the case, falls somewhere in the middle.

My first organizational experience with BBS programs was during an extended safety leadership engagement I was doing with a major oil company to help them establish a culture of safety.  Like a lot of other companies, they were using DuPont’s STOP program.  The particular company I was working with had rolled out the program several years prior to my arrival and by the time I began working with them the program was well underway and well entrenched in the organization.  They were clearly not happy with the results they were getting, which is one of the key reasons they decided to bring us on board.  By the end of our first year of rolling out a values-based safety-leadership program the company turned in its “best-ever safety-performance year” with a 40% reduction in recordable injuries and a 70% reduction in lost-time injuries–and that coming directly on the heels of its worst-ever safety-performance year.  While this company continued its BBS program throughout that same year, the EH&S leadership concluded, based on the unprecedented results they achieved with our VBSL program, that their BBS program “just doesn’t work.”

For me, this experience called into question the overall effectiveness of a strict BBS program absent an accompanying VBSL program.  What I witnessed in the execution of that particular BBS program was that it was highly labor-intensive and time-intensive, and it assumed that if workers just understood their behaviors in light of the policy that would somehow be enough to motivate them to do it differently next time.

My experience here seems also to be supported by the most recent industry research.  Some of the latest figures indicate some surprising twists.  First, the majority of companies surveyed (that have an active BBS program) reported that their program has resulted in safer behaviors.  That sounds impressive, until you get to the next figure. Only half of the companies that reported improvement in safety behaviors reported that their BBS program had helped reduce injuries (the other 50% reported no impact in reduction of injuries so far!).  Now this is an interesting statistic;  because, apart from a marked reduction in injuries, on what basis exactly would I be able to report that my company’s safety behaviors had improved?

Moreover, companies that reported improvements in injury rates say that it took them as many as four years to see those improvements. On top of that, these companies also reported that they had integrated their BBS program into a larger Safety Management Program that included other programs as well.  This makes it extremely difficult to pinpoint the actual cause of their eventual success (was it the BBS program, or one of the other programs?), much less attribute that success to the BBS program alone.

This research also lends credence to some of the criticism that has been raised against BBS programs; namely, that they tend to last too long and cost too much, and that there is nothing to sustain the results once the program ends (once it is discontinued, bad habits tend to return).  One valid criticism that impacts safety culture is that BBS programs tend to isolate safety rather than integrate it.  It becomes a separate “thing” to observe, discuss and track, which gives it a “bolted on” rather than a “built-in” flavor to it.

The advocates of BBS programs, while acknowledging the results of the research, suggest that the companies who have seen no impact with the program must have just gotten the design and/or execution of the program “very wrong.”

Well, perhaps.

But since a full 50% of surveyed companies fall into this category, then it’s just as likely that the problem is with the program’s philosophy as it is with its design and execution.  The same advocates point to anecdotal evidence that suggests that many companies have reduced their injury rates by as much as 30% in the first year of using a BBS program–which comes close, but still does not reach the 40% reduction achievable with a strict VBSL program, which focuses instead on positioning safety as a value, on leading safety, and on improved safety communication and safety coaching.

Having said all that, I think a BBS program can be effective if it is executed in conjunction with other programs that focus on values and leadership in safety as the road to safety excellence.  But I do not believe a BBS program can, by itself, change a culture.  For that, there must to be a change in what we think about safety (not just in attitude, but in belief).  The way we think about something and what we believe about it is what drives our behaviors. Behaviors can indeed be “taught”—hence, a BBS program may very well have some initial success (though that too must be qualified by our earlier observations).  But beliefs must be “caught.”  Without a paradigm shift in thinking and a change in what we believe about leadership and safety there’s really nothing to raise a BBS program beyond the level of “behavioral compliance,” and nothing to sustain that behavior once the flurry of activities and press around the program subsides.

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About the Author

Eric Svendsen
Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.