Why a behaviour based approach to safety doesn’t always work and how  can tech change that?

Mila Budeva
Mila Budeva
Mar 9, 2018

In 2016/2017, 137 workers were killed at work with construction, agriculture and manufacturing being the industries with the highest number of fatalities.

Adding to the black statistics, 92 members of the public were killed due to work related activities1.



 Data from the Health and Safety Executive http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/pdf/fatalinjuries.pdf#page=2


This is more than 200 human lives perished when putting even a single one at risk should be unacceptable. The disconcertingly high number of fatalities is the tip of an iceberg and an indicator of a failing system of workplace safety. In UK’s manufacturing sector alone there are 60,000 non-fatal injuries to workers each year2.



 Data from the Health and Safety Executive http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/industry/manufacturing/index.htm


As Heinrich’s triangle suggests, the higher the number of unsafe behaviours and minor accidents and injuries, the higher the likelihood of fatalities. Therefore, all industries can benefit from an approach that aims to flatten the Heinrich triangle and reinforce a safe environment and way of working.




Let’s looks at how a behaviour based observation approach to safety, enhanced by the latest digital capabilities can be used to identify and eliminate the root causes of incidents and accidents and build a culture of safety and compliance.


What is a behaviour based observation (BBO) approach to safety?

In a nutshell, a BBO approach to safety is based on observing, recording and addressing unsafe behaviours that could have serious implications. A BBO safety system aims to eliminate such behaviours, reduce the number of near-miss instances and incidents as well as acknowledge, reward and positively reinforce safe, compliant behaviour.


The aim is to:

zaptic-form-tick.png Identify unsafe behaviour, explain why it is unsafe and encourage suggestions and ideas of improvement to build together an improved culture of safety

zaptic-form-tick.png Follow up on the observation of unsafe behaviour and provide positive feedback on improvements

zaptic-form-tick.png Acknowledge, reward and encourage safe behaviours when observed

zaptic-form-tick.png Set an example by following safety procedures at all times


As Larry Hansen, author and principal of L2H Speaking of Safety Inc. notes, a number of companies have abandoned the approach as it proved inefficient. In his own words, “Done wrong, it can be used to mask organisational and management failures”3.


How can a BBO approach go wrong?

It is important to note that what BBO is not about is as important as what is essential to its successful implementation.

The BBO aproach is not about:

• Making workers feel monitored and pressured, hence disengaged with the BBO programme.

• Blaming and penalising workers when they display unsafe behaviours.

• Treating workers as incompetent or incapable of contributing to a better culture of safety.

• Trying to mask poor organisational practices – lack of good machinery, tools or safety clothing and equipment, for instance – by placing blame on individual behaviours.

• A rigid reporting process – for example, setting a weekly quota on observations to submit, resulting in made-up observations.

• Trying to make one’s own compliance stand out and diminish co-workers’ performance.


Arguments made against the approach claim that its inefficiency is inevitable because of the self-interested nature of human behaviour, organisational hierarchies and individual bias against co-workers. However, instances like the Large Gold Mining Facility in Nevada which won “Most Improved” Safety Award after implementing a BBO initiative evidence the opposite4.


Implementing digital capabilities – gamification, mobile, real-time reporting and communication with management, access to documentation and step by step guidance – can help to drive engagement with the BBO approach while avoiding its pitfalls and to establish a culture of safety and compliance.


How to ensure sefety system success with digital tech?

In order to contribute towards an improved HSEQ culture, it is important that workers feel engaged and incentivised, can easily improve their understanding of safe behaviours and communicate with co-workers and management, are rewarded for following best practices and can see how their individual behaviour is contributing to the overall safety culture.


With gamification, workers can earn points for implementing best practices. A leader board can give them visibility over others’ performance and motivate them to climb up. This way, rather than creating a name and shame atmosphere, a gamified approach can help to reward compliance and incentivise observations and effective interventions on the frontline through friendly competition.


A progress bar towards a manufacturing plant’s 100 days of 100% operational compliance, as another example, can motivate workers to follow best practices and visualise their impact on raising standards.


Providing workers with training and on-the-job guidance in the form of videos, quizzes, interactive to-do-lists etc. that they can access on their mobiles even when offline can inform and facilitate safe behaviours. A worker who has just watched a video on the risks of not wearing safety clothing and who can win extra points for evidencing compliance is more likely to pick safety over any motivator of at-risk behaviour.


To remove the possibility of masking organisation and management faults, technology can provide workers with the tools to report issues in real-time. For instance, if a worker is not wearing safety clothing because there was none available, they can record and report the instance as well as evidence why they are engaging in at-risk behaviour.  This way, workers are enabled to be proactive in improving overall working conditions and safety.


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