Creating a Culture of Safe Habits Begins with Identifying the Best Pinpoints: Hazard-driven Behavior Pinpointing in BBS

All of the talk lately has been focused on ‘what went wrong’ to create what turned out to be disastrous work environments in the case of BP’s Deepwater Horizon well explosion in the Gulf and the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia. For the last several decades, many companies have turned to Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) systems to enhance their safety culture and reduce incidents and injuries.  When these systems are designed and functioning well, evidence shows that they are quite effective in improving safe habits, communication of safety concerns, and the resulting safety outcomes (see Turnbeaugh, T. 2010, March. Improving business outcomes: Behavior-based safety techniques can influence organizational performance. Professional Safety, 55(3), 41-49). But there are many factors that can reduce the effectiveness of BBS systems, and they can pop up early in implementation or many years into the process.  One of the key elements to an effective process is identifying sound behavior pinpoints. BBS Systems are only as good as the behaviors targeted for improvement.

A common problem in BBS implementation occurs when participants select behaviors just because they are easy to observe (e.g., wearing safety glasses), or because they are easy choices in that failing to behave won’t draw management fire (e.g., keeping ladders properly stored).  This may mean that participants are avoiding the more serious behaviors – those that would help them be truly safer in their jobs – just to quickly generate behavior pinpoints to start working on.  Such practices might be acceptable in the first round of behavior pinpointing as a step in learning to observe fellow workers and give feedback to them, but if participants don’t quickly move on to more serious behaviors the entire process is at risk of being trivialized.

Hazard-driven pinpointingTM:  To pick behaviors worthy of everyone’s time and effort, the pinpointing process must start with the hazards present in the job.  Safety professionals together with workers from each functional area need to identify the most serious risks to personal safety or to process safety.  Many companies already do some form of Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) which identifies hazards and control measures that can be taken to eliminate or mitigate those risks. 

Recent and thorough JHAs can supply the hazard lists for each job.  In the absence of a JHA, incident and near-miss data can reveal at least some of the more likely risks.  Of course, incident data tells you what has happened, not what might happen, and typical incident records tend to skew toward the more common but less severe injuries (e.g., strains and sprains).  Examining only incident data won’t reveal the less likely but potentially catastrophic risks (e.g. fires, explosions, leaks of harmful chemicals). See Behavioral Minute: Near Miss Reporting

Hazard controls:  Once a list of hazards has been identified, participants need to examine existing control strategies.  If the hazard can be eliminated entirely through job or equipment redesign, and it is practical to do so, this should be the first choice.  If the hazard cannot be eliminated, other controls must be in place such as warning systems, interlocks, permitting procedures, equipment guards, special tools, personal protective equipment (PPE), safe job procedures, etc. It is crucial to realize that each of these controls relies on the behavior of operators and/or maintenance people to function properly and reduce the risk of an incident.  Therefore, the final safety control strategy must include personal protective behavior (PPB) as a component.

PPBs:   To maximize safety, workers will need to do things; things like, but not limited to:

  • Heed warning systems
  • Use proper tools properly
  • Follow safe procedures without taking risky shortcuts
  • Wear PPE
  • Ask for help when lifting heavy or awkward objects
  • Do safety scans before starting the job
  • Repair equipment critical to safety in a timely manner

BBS participants should select serious hazards to address and the critical behaviors necessary to make safety controls effective and reduce the risk of injury or incident.  Identifying hazards first can prevent falling into the trap of picking behaviors that won’t truly improve safety.  Hazard-driven pinpointing will take more time than simply asking, “Anybody have ideas for our next behavior?” but the payoff will come in a more robust BBS process that can lead to meaningful improvements in safety.

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Posted by Cloyd Hyten, Ph.D.

Cloyd is a senior consultant and thought leader in the field of performance improvement. Dedicating more than 20 years to this work, Cloyd has also served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and served as President of the OBM Network. Outside of work, Cloyd enjoys history, food and football.