Are Serious Injuries and Fatalities a Result of Failed Behavior-Based Safety?
Behavior-based safety is one of the most popular new processes implemented in the workplace in the past three decades. While BBS receives credit for the sharp decrease in minor accidents in the workplace during these years, one question remains. Why haven’t serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) decreased during this time as well? Let’s explore a few reasons why this discrepancy may have occurred.
Herbert William Heinrich
In 1931, a man named Herbert William Heinrich published a piece on safety in the workplace. He proposed that the vast majority of accidents in the workplace were the result of “unsafe acts” as opposed to unfavorable workplace conditions. Heinrich also believed in a ratio between serious injuries and fatalities and less serious accidents. Additionally, most of the support for his findings was submitted by supervisors and didn’t include any investigation into what prompted these unsafe acts in the first place. Heinrich’s work became an authority in BBS and heavily influenced behavior-based safety for decades to come.
Early BBS processes relied heavily on feedback from fellow workers to reinforce safe behavior in the workplace. However, many workers were skeptical and didn’t buy in and it took many years for this worker-to-worker feedback to help reduce accident frequency. Unfortunately, BBS still operated under Heinrich’s supposition that reducing unsafe acts would reduce SIFs – an inaccurate correlation.
Early BBS practices involved a brainstormed list of unsafe behaviors and focused on using feedback to try and modify those behaviors. However, the brainstormed behaviors list was not a comprehensive list and efforts were put in place to modify too many behaviors at once. Additionally, very few checklists paid any heed to severity potential so the rate of SIFs did not decrease.
Even after the creation of Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), analysis was shortsighted. Instead of investigating the possible factors that contributed to SIFs, the focus remained on observer feedback, thus many direct and indirect factors leading to SIFs were overlooked.
Early founders of BBS were academics, not industrial workers. On this account, the perspective from which they approached industrial safety was rooted in academia. They lacked a boots-on-the-ground perspective that takes into account both organizational and industrial differences. They also isolated worker behavior and studied it in a vacuum, ignoring factors that could impact accidents.
While the instance of minor accidents in the workplace has decreased, it remains difficult to pinpoint a singular reason SIFs have not. It’s likely a combination of factors. However, the most important takeaway lies in recognizing that in order to decrease the instance of SIFs in the workplace, all factors that influence worker behavior must be studied and addressed.