The Basics of Safety: Behavior-Based Safety vs. Process-Based Safety

In Part Two of his back-to-basics series, Phil La Duke of Rockford Greene explores why the widest gulf between safety philosophies lies between these two of the more popular systematic approaches.

Part Two of our back-to-basics series explores why the widest gulf between safety philosophies lies between these two of the more popular systematic approaches.

Behavior-Based Safety, or BBS as it is often called, is an approach to worker safety based on a combination of behavioral science research, organizational behavior, and behavioral psychology. In broad strokes, BBS is based upon the idea that the vast majority of injuries are caused by unsafe acts and the safety of the workplace can be significantly improved by activities aimed at reinforcing safe behaviors and raising the awareness of unsafe acts.

There are many different BBS systems and the popularity of the methodology has grown exponentially in recent years. The system is particularly attractive among business owners and safety professionals that are frustrated by a pattern of injuries that could have been easily prevented had the injured parties simply exercised a modicum of care. BBS systems seek to impart accountability for safety to workers while encouraging safe behavior through feedback and incentives.

While much recent research has been done supporting BBS systems, many of the basic concepts are rooted in the work of early behavior and industrial psychologists, must notably Fredrick Taylor and Herbert Heinrich. In 1911 Fredrick Taylor published his seminal work, The Principles of Scientific Management, which advocated the use of the scientific method in managing workers to improve productivity. Scientific management techniques promoted standardizing work around the optimization of jobs to the point where workers could be taught and managed against a single standard way of doing the job. These scientific techniques eventually evolved into the discipline of industrial engineering.

In 1926 Hebert Heinrich, while working at the Travelers Insurance company, published Incidental Cost of Accidents to the Employer. In this and subsequent works he concluded that the vast majority of injuries were caused by controllable unsafe actions.

The Behavior Based Safety philosophies grew from the belief derived from these and other bodies of work that the best way to reduce injuries is to modify the behaviors that are most likely to cause those injuries. Over time, however, there have risen numerous BBS methodologies and practitioners that do not always agree on the optimum formula for affecting behavioral change, even though their systems typically share these three commonalities:

Promotion of Awareness. A workplace that is heavily invested in BBS is likely to employ numerous visual tools designed to remind workers of the importance of working safely and to encourage workers to be mindful of the consequences for not working safe. One especially popular promotion is the incorporation of posters drawn by the children of the workers, underscoring the impact that a serious injury will have beyond the workplace.

Incentives. BBS proponents believe that providing incentives for working safe plays an important part of any safety system. Incentives for working safe can range from simple financial bonuses for a specified period where no workers were injured to complex safety games and contests with elaborate prizes.

Safety Observations. In safety observations an experienced worker – typically a supervisor or safety professional – will watch a worker do his or her job, after which the observer provides feedback on the safety with which the worker completed the job. The point of observing the work being performed is to point out unsafe acts and offer tips for making the job safer.

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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, You can also follow Phil and reach him on his blogs at

1 Comment

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  • Jim Keating wrote:

    Following Heinrich is tantamount to malpractice of the safety discipline. He claimed that 88% of workplace accidents are “man-caused”. To date no one has been able to locate the data base Heinrich used to support his hypothesis of “man-cause accidents”. On the contrary, Dr. D. Edwards Deming claims that at least 85% of workplace accidents can be traced to the process rather that the proximate behavioral cause. Dr. Deming’s analysis from is based on the mathematical analysis of statistics not iffy correlation.

    Focusing on behavior alone will never have a substantive on accident reduction. If you stop at behavior without determining the contributing process problem you will only address that single incident behavioral issue but if the process problem is solved that same type of incident is unlikely to reoccur.

    The root of this problem lies with the fact that process problems belong to management and we are reluctant to share in this blame game when it is easier to just buy into Heinrich’s behavioral nonsense.