Thoughts on Behavior Based Safety

One word – EXPOSURE.

Ideally BBS or any other type of targeted / focussed safety approach should have just one goal. Reducing EXPOSURE. To achieve this end, experience and common sense dictates that we follow the hierarchy of controls (which we usually end up doing during our routine risk assessments) to reduce exposure.

Let’s consider examples to better illustrate the hierarchy of controls.

  1. Remove the exposure completely. For example eliminating items which may have been deemed to be a tripping hazard or where someone could hit their head etc.
  2. Failing this the next best thing would be to work around and minimize exposure. This would include creating marked walkways around dangers, machinery cages, an extended handle to operate a tricky valve etc.
  3. If the above is not an option then next comes the steps of procedures and signs whereby personnel are warned about a possible exposure by a yellow and black striped sign or by procedure they are required to wear certain PPE etc.

Notice how controls are getting meeker as we go down the list.

The last and arguably the least successful/effective weapon in our arsenal is to CHANGE PEOPLE’S BEHAVIORS!! This category includes telling people not to rush, maintain situational awareness, fight complacency etc.

If this is the least successful then why are we still talking about BBS?

Simply because we have already done all of the above and failed to get to ZERO. BBS is the incremental effort in our quest for ZERO. Changing people’s behaviors is not easy, however one of the best things we can hope to achieve is to ensure that people fully understand the final goal of REDUCING EXPOSURE as well as the hierarchy of controls. These behaviors among the frontline staff then drive the exposure reducing process by seeking out higher modes of control to reduce exposure as a result of regular observations.

One of the things I have personally struggled with as a Quality guy in the past (and seen many of my industry colleagues struggle with as well) is the unpredictability of incidents in general. There are periods which seem like all hell has broken loose. Then again at a different time, after not doing things too differently over a certain period, we see injury rates decline. In the meantime we are on the edge wondering when the next spike might happen and how are we going to deal with it. This is because we are looking at a LAGGING INDICATOR viz. injury rates. By the time this data is available to us we are already behind the curve and any action taken is substantially delayed and is usually knee jerk and fails to promote sustained reduction of EXPOSURE. IRONICALLY CUES FROM OUR USUAL KPIs RESULT IN MORE RELIANCE ON ‘REACTIVE’ SAFETY AND UNFORTUNATELY PROMOTES IT.

Enter BBS. If the program is run by a workforce which understands (there has to be a comprehensive training initiative at the onset) the goal of REDUCING EXPOSURE, then there is an excellent chance that we may be looking at an effective LEADING INDICATOR. Personnel send in observations and the team on the frontline as well as in management are trained to think in a way where the hierarchy of controls is effectively applied to limit exposure.

Why is EXPOSURE so important? Personnel could be performing an at risk behavior of climbing on a wobbly paint drum to do a routine task, rather than a proper ladder, for years without getting hurt. Hence if we were looking at injury rates (a LAGGING INDICATOR) we would probably not figure out the potential injury waiting to happen. However if we have an effective system of observations (BBS – a LEADING INDICATOR) we would have the workforce on our side helping us to figure out that there is no ladder in the vicinity and that is the reason it is so much more convenient to just hop on the paint drum. Of course this is a hypothetical situation and the reasons could be myriad. However the solution is to REDUCE EXPOSURE, in this case caused by climbing on a paint drum, by determining the correct ‘BECAUSE’  (observations are usually reported in the WHILE-WAS-BECAUSE format) and eliminating or reducing that EXPOSURE.

Please click here to read on about thoughts on why some of us may or may not be ready to take the BBS plunge… yet.

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  1. Dev
    Jan 25, 2013

    Dear Sarkar,

    Excellent and thought provoking article on BBS. I have used the system in one of my previous company for 3+ years and i can personally vouch that it works ‘IF’ implemented that way it should be.
    But unfortunately there are a few things we have to consider:
    1. BBS was not actually developed for sea but for shore installation (DuPont). The foreman or a designated person was given time to do the checks and report the findings. It’s all hunky dory when they perform more or less the same task day in and day out.
    2. On ships, the proper reporting and rectification becomes an issue with reduced manning, different types of jobs, crew with different capabilities and many a times tremendous work pressure.
    3. We had minimum reports to be made as per rank. So when you see someone approaching you with a pad and a pen, you know you better buckle up for he will be assessing you. Each observation should be ideally for half an hour. So invariably some form filling gets done without adhering to all the pre-requisites.
    4. BBS has to be ingrained at the lowest level that actually performs the job, as safety without understanding is worthless. Again unfortunately we really don’t have a sure method for “igniting” that flame of safety in everyone.

    BBS should be dynamic and some part responsibility of safety has to be taken by the individual. That is one area we are failing because each of us are different and has to be dealt differently.

    • Bash Sarkar
      Jan 25, 2013

      Dear Dev

      Thanks for your comments.

      A few of the issues you have raised, especially about training, I have covered in the second part as to why we might not be ready for BBS in our organization yet. I have provided a link at the bottom of the article.

      We all speak for our own experiences and my experience indicates a high level of success, provided the foundation is thought out well and laid down with specific consideration of the industry as well as the company culture. Any “off-the-shelf” approach will probably be difficult. Hence if one does the case study for DuPont and tries to apply it to a marine environment, it surely has a poor chance of success.

      Also in my experience a good observation within a well trained workforce should not take more than 5-10 minutes. Add another 5-10 minutes for the entry into the electronic data gathering system. I do believe “buckling up” for an observation is a desirable behavior as it eventually leads to good habits.

      However it all depends on the intent and direction of the system from the very beginning. If it is not developing towards a culture rather than strictly a safety chore, then I think we might miss the bus…

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