Beyond regulations: behavior-based process attacks safety issues from new perspective

by Emily Wilson
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Since 1970, with the formation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, industry has focused on numerous safety issues, resulting in high-quality training and a decrease in injury rates. Whether it has been out of a duty to comply with the law or a deep-rooted desire to protect employees, businesses have worked to meet OSHA requirements and reduce accidents by implementing safety committees, employee involvement, training, enforcement and incentive programs.

Although many companies in the United States and in other countries around the world, such as England, Australia and Canada, comply with national safety regulations, property damage, injuries and fatalities continue to occur. This illustrates the inherent gap between safety initiatives focused around legal compliance and the desire for zero injuries in the workplace.

The first step to narrow that gap is to realize that safety is not only physical, but also mental. The majority of OSHA regulations and workplace safety initiatives focus on physical issues, such as installing railing to a certain height, instituting a new training program or giving away a prize. While the physical aspect will always be necessary, workplace safety can be greatly improved if attention is paid to the mental aspect of safe behaviors.

Initiating a behavioral safety program explores the mental aspect of safety by identifying why at-risk behavior occurs and then removing barriers that prevent safe work performance.

BEHAVIOR DEFINED. Behavior is an observable act. For a behavioral safety program to excel, interpretation of the word "behavior" needs to include both negative and positive events. Employees demonstrate positive behavior every day, by wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE), following lockout procedures and buckling up when they get into a company vehicle.

The problem is that managers do not act on positive behaviors. They typically act only on negative behaviors — when employees do something wrong.

Take the following example of behavior. An employee climbs down a ladder and boards a grain barge to do some work. In the 15 minutes that it took the man to do the work, the barge drifted five feet away from the ladder. The worker decides to jump for the ladder, but misses and falls into the water. His life vest promptly brings him to the surface. Humiliated, he grabs the ladder, climbs to the dock and walks to the office, his clothing soaked.

After the incident, the employee's manager promptly holds an "anonymous" safety meeting to review the dangers of jumping from a barge deck to a ladder. Though attempts are made to disguise the identity of the involved worker, the small workforce easily deduces the violator.

This may be a common cycle at many workplaces: an employee violates a safety performance standard and management handles the situation by raising the awareness of the hazard with the crew. It is important, however, to consider the benefits of this process versus the potential damage done to the employee who committed the infraction.

In this situation, management assumed that the employee simply made a poor decision. While that is true, they need to discover why the employee with total control over his work environment made a decision that put him at risk for an injury.

Analyzing this behavior may reveal other issues:

•The employee may have felt pressure to hurry.

•The employee may have been embarrassed to ask for help from a co-worker.

•The employee may not have perceived the jump as a hazard.

•There may have been problems with the work area that caused the barge to drift.

When investigating such incidents, avoid jumping to a single conclusion and acting on it. A great deal of helpful information will be missed. To find this information, ask a series of "why" questions. These questions should apply to incident investigations as well as all aspects of a health and safety program.

•Why did the employee do what he/she did? (Were they embarrassed or afraid to ask for help?)

•Why did the employee feel the pressure to cut corners? (Are unrealistic production demands in place?)

•Why are employees bored at safety meetings? (Is the material outdated? Do they already know it? Should different training methods be used?)

•Why won't employees participate in the safety program? (Are they intimidated? Do they feel management does not value their efforts? Is group pressure an issue?)

BRIDGING THE GAP. The fundamental goal of behavioral safety is to shorten the gap between the safe procedures we are trained to follow and what behaviors we actually exhibit. The challenge is to identify the behaviors, understand why they are occurring and identify methods to encourage employees to exhibit the desired safe behaviors.

The behavioral safety process allows employees to observe the work process, discuss potential at-risk behaviors, identify why the behaviors are occurring and determine how to remove barriers to a safe work performance.

The primary discovery tool in the behavioral safety process is peer observation. A worker must objectively observe an event before he can truly determine if there are flaws present or if it is functioning as desired.

For example, if I were to ask you the compliance percentage of wearing PPE at your facility, you would likely say 100%. Unfortunately, memories are fallible. After observing employees as they perform various tasks, you may find that compliance is only around 80%.

In this observation process, employees systematically observe each other while performing jobs throughout the work day. Observers use a checklist of critical behaviors that directly influence the safety of workers, such as wearing PPE correctly, communicating with others in the work area, housekeeping, using tools appropriately, body positioning and following task procedures. Whether general or detailed, design a checklist that accurately addresses issues in your work environment.

The process requires peer observation and anonymity to relieve employees' fear of negative repercussions if they exhibit at-risk behaviors. This helps increase employee participation and gain an accurate picture of at-risk behaviors taking place.

Following a 10- to 12-minute observation, the pair of employees discuss what was observed, providing an opportunity for each employee to openly talk about safety. The observer will encourage the employee where safe behaviors were used and discuss behaviors that were believed to be at risk.

This dialogue is one of the most important parts of the behavioral safety process. It helps build trust among the workforce as well as identifying areas for improvement in safe work performance.

After the observation, the observer turns in an observation card to be counted in the data collection system. A data collector gathers observation cards and records the information in a data management system to identify trends that will result in establishing areas of health and safety focus.

At the backbone of the process is the implementation team, composed of both management and hourly employees, generally totaling between 10 and 12 members. Though the team will include members of management, it is critical that employees drive the team.

Because many grain elevators have only a few employees, the team can be modified in size to fit the facility, or individual facilities may join together to function as a team in implementing the process.

As trends are identified, the implementation team determines potential directions for action and notifies management of potential expenditures or process changes that might need to be approved. The implementation team also helps communicate these achievements to each employee at the facility. This renews employee commitment to the process and provides evidence of its success.

The minimal level of involvement for each employee is to allow themselves to be observed. But unlike traditional safety compliance efforts, employees should not be forced to participate. Manage-ment's main role in the behavioral safety process primarily entails supporting proposed changes and encouraging employee participation.

Though members of management will not perform formal observations using a checklist, management should use similar concepts when conducting workplace inspections, supervising various jobs or evaluating training efforts.

SAFE INTENTIONS. A safety culture survey of various companies conducted by Safety Performance Solutions, Inc., Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S., exemplifies the importance of behavior-based safety. The survey asked employees to respond to three versions of the same statement:

•I should caution co-workers when observed performing at risk behaviors. (To reveal employees' values.)

•I am willing to caution co-workers when observed performing at risk behaviors. (To reveal employees' intentions.)

•I do caution co-workers when observed performing at-risk behaviors. (To reveal employees' behavior.)

Of the employees surveyed, 90% believed that employees should caution each other when at-risk behavior is observed. Approximately 82% said they were willing to caution co-workers, while only 60% said that they actually do caution co-workers. The behavioral safety process will help narrow the gap between those who think they should caution co-workers and those who actually do it.

The behavioral safety process fosters a culture where safety is a norm, drawing a line between safety being a priority and safety being a value. Because priorities change, safety should be held as a value. Through this process, employees become empowered to do whatever is necessary to provide a safe work environment for themselves and their co-workers.

SHIFTING THE NORM. Behavioral safety presents significant challenges. It requires a change of focus from measuring failures to measuring successes.

Although most areas of business measure achievement with positive indicators, safety is typically measured by the negative data — injuries, lost days and dollars lost in property damage. Instead, positive things should be measured, such as safety improvement ideas and safe behaviors. Safety Performance Solutions identifies several areas where we need to shift our focus.

Opposed to merely looking at the outcomes, focus on the process itself. In the example of the employee who jumped off the barge to catch the ladder, management focused on the outcome (the employee falling into the water). By focusing instead on the overall process and identifying contributing factors, we are better able to prevent at-risk behaviors.

To make safety a natural part of employee behavior, employees must take ownership and leadership of the safety process as a whole. We need to move beyond OSHA compliance and realize the responsibility each individual shares in providing a safe and healthy work environment. A behavioral safety process complements current safety compliance initiatives, moving a company closer to zero injuries at the workplace.

To implement the behavior-based safety process, a high degree of employee acceptance of safety initiatives and a positive, supportive attitude from management must exist. It also is necessary to have a strong health and safety program in place before implementing behavior-based safety.