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Unions Go to War with Behavior-Based Safety

Bad news for all those companies cashing in on Behavior Based Safety; it looks like international Unions have formalized their opposition to it.

Bad news for all those companies cashing in on Behavior-Based Safety; it looks like international unions have formalized their opposition to it.

My opposition to Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) is widely known and often derided by snake-oil salesmen who get fat off their junk science processes and dismissed by the ivory-tower psuedo-scientists who have never seen a hair-brained scheme they didn’t love. I’ve always counseled companies to fix the problem, not the blame, but I am largely ignored by people who literally make money on the broken backs of injured workers.

I’m not the only one with strong feeling on the subject, however. BBS has long had a polarizing effect on safety professionals for some it’s a scientific way to increase workplace safety by rewarding safe behavior and coaching people in cases where they acted unsafely. For others it’s an institutionalized way to blame and punish workers who were injured after doing something accidentally; an attempt to blame the workers for something no one intended. View points on both sides are fierce — and the debate is heating up.

Recently Worker’s Uniting (a global group comprised of the United Steelworkers and Unite, the UK and Ireland’s largest union) released a statement condemning “any scheme that ‘blames the worker’ for injuries, illnesses and fatalities in the workplace.”

The statement, excepted in the November 2011 issue of ISHN magazine, states in part that:
“Behavioral safety is the name given to a variety of management programs that focus on worker behaviour as the main cause of injuries and accidents at work. These programs presume that if workers just work carefully enough, wear their personal protective equipment and follow safety rules, job injuries and illnesses will not happen. Behavioral safety programs ignore the key role that workplace hazards and hazardous conditions play in injury/illness causation. Many behavioral safety programs are designed in ways that undermine trade union activity on health and safety decrease the role of joint health & safety committees and shift the blame for accidents and poor health & safety from management to workers.”

For the record, I am deeply and fundamentally opposed to behavior-based programs. Evidence has clearly shown that these approaches lead to under-reporting of injuries, a rise in animosity toward injured workers, and in general a lack of sustained effectiveness. I have always promoted a process improvement approach to worker safety as the way to effect lasting change.

Finding, containing, and correcting the root causes of the system flaws that cause worker injuries is the single greatest tool in the safety professional’s arsenal. It would seem that Workers Uniting agrees with me. According to ISHN, Workers Uniting is challenging the legality of behavioral safety programs, which they say violates British laws that UK law decrees that hazards must be identified via “a risk assessment and  removed or reduced ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’.”

The statement by Workers Uniting also says that “In reducing risk an employer has to go through a widely accepted suite of hazard controls which consider elimination and engineering controls before less effective solutions such as PPE, training and safe working procedures . . . Behavioral safety turns this process of hazard identification and hazard control on its head. It ignores the identification and proper correction of hazardous workplace conditions, and emphasizes PPE and safe working procedures as the main ways of preventing injury. Because of this, many pure behavioural safety programs do not conform to UK or European law.”

“In Canada and the U.S., regulators generally require employers to identify, evaluate and control hazards. While regulatory requirements differ by region and industry, requirements for mitigating hazards support the use of the hierarchy of controls. Schemes that blame workers violate not only the intent of these requirements, but, in some cases, the letter of the law.”

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Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke is a partner in the Performance Assurance Practice at ERM: Environmental Resources Management, 3352 128th Avenue, Holland, MI 49424, 313-244-2525, www.erm.com. You can also follow Phil and reach him on his blogs at www.philladuke.wordpress.com.

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