Who Killed BBS

Who Killed BBS (and is it really dead?)

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

For decades, you couldn’t attend a safety conference or open a safety magazine without running into behavior-based safety (BBS). It was EVERYWHERE! Some hailed BBS as the “next big thing.” Others said it was just another “blame the employee” program. Whatever your stance on BBS, it was ever-present and top of mind for many organizational leaders looking to jumpstart their safety performance.   

And then a funny thing happened … we stopped hearing about it. Even one of the original architects of BBS declared it dead. So, the question is: Is BBS really dead? And if so, who or what killed it?

A Little Background

Before beginning any BBS post-mortem, it’s important to understand why BBS gained so much popularity in the first place, and why it’s still discussed 40+ years after inception. In the early 1970s, OSHA was created to protect front-line workers and hold corporate leaders accountable for establishing a safe work environment with rules, tools, and training. Significant progress was made but people were still getting hurt.

Leading psychologists then began researching and discussing new ways to prevent incidents with a focus on human behavior. They helped create and popularize “behavior-based safety” as a viable, scientific method to prevent injuries. Decades of empirical research followed which demonstrated the efficacy of BBS to improve safety performance.1-11 Other safety approaches were successful, but they paled in comparison with the sheer volume of studies showing the benefits of BBS. 

The 1-2 Punch that Rocked BBS

With all the early success of BBS, the natural question is what went wrong? The erosion of BBS popularity can be traced to 2 big events.

First, BBS began to be implemented poorly. In some cases, overworked EHS personnel were tasked with executing BBS. Here’s a typical scenario:  

1. Senior executives get frustrated with too many injuries (sometimes impacting their bonuses).
2. These executives attribute their incidents to employees making mistakes.
3. They hear about BBS and determine that fixing employee behavior is the answer.
4. They instruct EHS personnel to “do” BBS.

While many do-it-yourself processes were highly successful, some EHS personnel simply lacked the bandwidth or experience to introduce viable BBS programs. Worse, a cavalcade of so called “experts” began packaging and selling BBS as a commodity without any fundamental understanding of behavior analysis. They provided training that neither engaged nor educated employees. More time was spent teaching people how to fill out cards instead of how to talk openly about safety. Quotas for completion were recommended. System factors contributing to incidents were ignored.

The result? Many BBS efforts were short-lived, employees often felt blamed, and corporate leaders were underwhelmed that BBS didn’t transform their culture as advertised.

The second gut-punch to BBS was the rising tide of technology.

To be clear, there are benefits with technology. Data entry is easier and faster with tablets/cell phones and predictive analytics shows real promise to prevent future incidents. However, there’s also a downside to technology.

Corporate leaders love data and the increased ease of electronic entry and collection led to the creation of ridiculously long checklists. This turned off employees who were often reluctant to participate in BBS in the first place. It also encouraged pencil whipping. Also, complex data bases and pivot tables were used to showcase participation rates more than percent safe scores and (more importantly) action items completed. In many cases, workers submitted observations but never heard back from the company. This “black hole” syndrome killed engagement and prompted leaders to try artificial mandates and incentives to spur participation. Although technology is often beneficial, the misapplication of it with BBS created problems.

So Who Killed BBS?

Nobody. Despite these challenges and contrary to popular opinion, BBS is alive and well. Unlike “one and done” training programs, BBS has inherent culture change imbedding properties. The observation and feedback process provides a feedback loop to get employee input, make changes, and then advertise improvements.

But changes are needed. BBS has gone stale. Consider these key guidelines for revamping your BBS process: 

1. Provide engaging, holistic BBS training that focuses on behaviors, attitudes, and systems. Emphasize open communication and creating a real learning culture.
2. Stress conversations over cards. At its core, BBS is designed to improve the quantity and quality of safety conversations.12-17 Reinforce that “it’s not an observation without a conversation.” If people are uncomfortable filling out a card on the spot, they should do it later at their convenience.
3. Add more open-ended questions to your cards like:

a. What scares you about the job in terms of your own personal safety?

b. What else do you need to stay safe?

c. Do any procedures need updating?

d. Are there any tools or equipment you need?

e. Where might the next injury occur?

f. What would you change about the job to make it safer?

4. Design BBS cards with more focus on SIF potential behaviors (e.g., LOTO, confined space, fall protection). The checklist should not be a PPE laundry list exercise. Also, consider calculating percent safe scores to better understand behavioral strengths and gaps across areas and locations. Don’t simply chart how many cards get done.
5. Ensure no “name-no blame” is advertised and enforced.
6. Involve employees in designing the cards they’ll use. NIOSH research shows that employees are 7 times more likely to conduct observations when they’re actively involved in creating BBS cards and rules for use.
7. Kill the quotas and quit worrying about the total number of cards turned in. Focus on high quality cards and comments instead.
8. Get back to people so they know their observations aren’t going into a “black hole.” This boosts psychological safety and promotes a true learning culture.
9. Focus on fixing the system. Advertising improvements based on observation cards is the fastest way to get BBS participation. It’s also one of the best way to prevent incidents.

So Where Are We Now?

The halcyon days of BBS are over. But it’s NOT dead! Moving forward, BBS should be used to promote good conversations, improve system deficiencies, and prevent future incidents.

Like old software, BBS simply needs a reboot. There should be more focus on conversations over cards and people over paper. Following the guidelines above can refresh and revamp your process into a powerful, new BBS 2.0.

At Propulo, we work with leaders to create or revamp existing BBS programs to increase discretionary effort and prevent SIFs.    


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