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Behavior-Based Safety vs. Safety Culture

Many contractors work hard to have a good safety program, yet injuries still occur. Frustrated and looking for another idea, some turn to “behavior-based safety” or BBS.

Premise of BBS

BBS proponents believe that unsafe worker behaviors are the main cause of injuries and that only by controlling behaviors can injuries be prevented. Under this approach, management encourages supervisors and co-workers to report whether or not other employees are working safely, and it issues rewards or dispenses disciplinary action accordingly.

Proponents of BBS often cite data put forth by H.W. Heinrich in his influential 1959 book, Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach. Examining 83,984 accidents in Pennsylvania in 1955, Heinrich reported that 82.6 percent were the result of “unsafe acts.” To this day, many safety advocates rely on this study to claim that most accidents are caused by worker carelessness.

A more careful examination of Heinrich’s work, however, does not support this claim. Heinrich recognized that “there may be several causes of any one accident,” noting that his reference to unsafe acts is only to the “direct or proximate cause.” Just as important, he writes, is the “subcause or reason why such unsafe conditions were permitted to exist.” He also discusses the “underlying facts,” known today as the root causes. These include “faults of management and supervision plus the unwise methods and procedures that management and supervision fail to correct.”

Thus, while Heinrich stressed the importance of worker behavior in causing accidents, he asserted that management failures play a role as well, estimating that they are a factor in about half of all accidents.

Safety Culture Alternative

A more effective approach than BBS takes a company’s safety culture as its starting point. While recognizing the role workers play in causing accidents, safety culture seeks the root cause of worker behavior. Following a safety culture approach, many construction companies now do surveys to measure how workers and management perceive safety in the worksite. Presented as a “cultural gap analysis,” these surveys generally show that workers have a significantly less favorable view of the quality of a company’s site safety program than does management. It can be summed up with the question: When management says that safety is vital to the company, do the workers really believe it? If not, management must take responsibility for getting workers on board by addressing the gap.

If workers do not believe that management really cares about their safety (will not respond and may retaliate if they raise safety concerns), then unsafe conditions will go unreported, and more injuries are inevitable. What does management do (or not do) to cause this perception? Does it listen to safety concerns and follow up quickly to get unsafe conditions corrected? Does it allow production pressures to trump safety? Does it expressly give workers the authority to stop work if they believe it to be dangerous? Are workers encouraged to report problems, even close calls, to get a clearer picture of needed prevention actions? Is the safety message communicated to workers also regularly addressed to subcontractors and front line foremen?

Ultimately, worksite safety and health is a function of both worker and management performance. Assigning blame is counterproductive. In its efforts to curtail worksite injuries and illness, management will be most effective if it first examines its own practice through the eyes of its employees and then tackles the problems of worker behaviors.

The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division can assist LIUNA signatory contractors in designing strong and effective company- and site-safety programs. For help, contact the Division at 202-628-5465.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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