Behavior-based safety

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Simply put, Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) is the ”application of science of behavior change to real world problems”.[1] BBS “focuses on what people do, analyzes why they do it, and then applies a research-supported intervention strategy to improve what people do”.[2] At its very core BBS is based on a larger scientific field called Organizational Behavior Analysis.[3]

To be successful a BBS program must include all employees. This includes the CEO to the floor associates. To achieve changes in behavior a change in policy, procedures\and/or systems most assuredly will also need some change. Those changes cannot be done without buy-in and support from all involved in making those decisions.

BBS is not based on assumptions, personal feeling, and/or common knowledge. To be successful, the BBS program used must be based on scientific knowledge.

A good BBS program will consist of:

  • Common Goals - Both employee and managerial involvement in the process
  • Definition of what is expected - Specifications of target behaviors derived form safety assessments[4]
  • Observational data collection
  • Decisions about how best to proceed based on those data
  • Feedback to associates being observed
  • Review

All of the BBS programs reviewed included multilevel teams. Some programs use them in the assessment phase, some in observation and some in review. Some had all three areas using multilevel teams.

Behavior based safety must also have attitude adjustment to be sustaining. It has been proven that “behavior influences attitude and attitude influences behavior”.[5] The goal should be small gains over and over again; continuous growth. BBS is not a quick fix. It is a commitment.

There are numerous programs on how to implement behavior-based safety programs. They vary in price, detail and commitment. But the goal is always the same: eliminate injury.


Behavior-based safety is a topic that has been around for a long time. BBS originated with the work of Herbert William Heinrich. [6]. In the 1930's, Heinrich, who worked for Traveler's Insurance Company, reviewed thousands of accident reports completed by supervisors and from these drew the conclusion that most accidents, illnesses and injuries in the workplace are directly attributable to "man-failures," or the unsafe actions of workers. Of the reports Heinrich reviewed, 73% classified the accidents as "man-failures;" Heinrich himself reclassified another 15% into that category, arriving at the still-cited finding that 88 percent of all accidents, injuries and illnesses are caused by worker errors. [7]

Heinrich’s data does not tell why the person did what they did to cause the accident, just that accident occurred. BBS programs delve into the act that cause the accident. It delves into the work place; environment, equipment, procedures and attitudes. (6)

Basic Organizational Behavior Analysis is what is used to identify the actions that put the associate in the risk position. Organizational Behavior Analysis has been done for 100 years. Directing the applied research to an organizational application specifically to safety has been going on for around 20 years. (3)

Heinrich published work describing the results that he derived by evaluating the accidents from an extensive data base compiled by the insurance industry.[6] He came to the conclusion that roughly 90% of all incidents are caused by human error. This conclusion became the foundation of what BBS has come to be today. BSS addresses the fact that there are additional reasons for injuries in the work place; environment, equipment, procedures and attitudes.

Basic Organizational Behavior Analysis has been done for 100 years. Directing the applied research to an organizational application specifically to safety has been going on for around 20 years.[3]

The phrase “behavior-based safety” (BSS) was coined by Dr. E. Scott Geller of Safety Performance Solutions in 1979.[8] It then became the catch phrase of the safety systems industry.

Traditionally BBS has been used in industrial settings. A new generation has found success using BBS is office/lab settings as well.[6]

Dr. Luis López-Mena, Professor of Work Psychology at the University of Chile, has developed a BBS system, his PTAS Method (Psychological Techniques Applied to Safety). The PTAS Method has five steps:

  • Identify target behavior
  • Behavior Measurement
  • Functional Analysis
  • Intervention
  • Evaluation and follow up


In the 1990s, unions typically were not accepting of the BBS concept. It was viewed in some areas as shifting all of the responsibilities for safety from engineering and management to the workers and their behaviors, “blaming the victim”. It was feared that workers would be blamed for accidents that were caused by poor design, faulty equipment, or other environmental issues. It was feared that the process of workers watching works and interacting about safety issues would turn worker against worker and create hostile work environments, a "big brother" type of situation. In a facility where there is no management support, this could be true.

Donald J. Eckenfelder[9] stated that he felt that “BBS has virtues but lasted too long and cost too much.” He felt that it has been used incorrectly turning the process into a hindrance instead of a help. His analogy was “Water is essential to life: if we fill our lungs with it, it becomes poison.”[9] Some think that BBS has outlived its usefulness. In fact, some feel that BBS “isolates safety instead of integrating it.” (But no examples were given.) It is felt that the continuous inspection is not causing attitude or behavior shift and once it is discontinued, all bad habits come back.[9] (Again this could be true if the program doesn’t include addressing attitude.)


BBS is a term used by many without real understanding of what it is.[10] People make judgments on what they hear and not what is fact. Even people in the industry sometimes do not know what the process for BBS is.

The two works cited in the Criticism section do not give back up for their opinions. They merely make statement and show no proof. The assessments were made on a “common sense” or “beliefs” level not a scientific level. Coincidently, BBS programs that are set up on “common sense” or “beliefs” instead of scientific observations are not successful.

Notes and References

  1. Staff. “How Does Behavioral Safety work?” Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies. <>
  2. Geller, E. Scott (2004). “Behavior-based safety: a solution to injury prevention: behavior-based safety “empowers” employees and addresses the dynamics of injury prevention.” Risk & Insurance.15(12, 01 Oct) p 66
  3. 3.0 3.1 Matthews, Grainne A. “Behavioral Safety from the Consumer’s Perspective: Determining Who Really Provides Behavior safety.” Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. <>
  4. Sulzer-Azaroff, Beth. “Safe Behavior; Fewer Injuries.” Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies.
  5. Geller, E. Scott (1998). Working Safe: How to help people actively care for health and safety. Lewis Publishers
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Al-Hemoud, Ali M., Al-Asfoor, May M. (2006) “A behavior based safety approach at a Kuwait research institution.” Journal of Safety Research, 37 (2) pp 2001-2006.
  7. SEMCOSH Fact Sheet: Behavior Based Safety (2004)
  8. Atkinson, William (2005). “Behavior-based safety.” MC (Manufactured Concrete) Magazine May/June. <>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Eckenfelder, Donald J.(2004) “Behavior Based safety: a model poisoned by the past; based on obsolete thinking, behavior based safety.” Risk & Insurance 15 (12) pg 65
  10. Wilson, Larry (2004). “Why BBS Works.” Occupational Health and Safety 73 (10, Oct) pg 78, Waco.

Additional Reading

Dell, Geoff (1999). “Safe Place vs. Safe Person: A Dichotomy, or Is It?” Safety Science Monitor 3, Article 14, Special Addition.

Hartford Loss Control Department (2002). “About Behavior-Based Safety Management.” The Hartford Loss Control Tips, Technical Information Paper Series. TIPS S 520.019.

Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies. <>

Quality Safety Edge. BSN 2007 (Behavioral Safety Now). <>

Lopez-Mena, L. (1989) Intervencion psicologica en la empresa (in spanish)Barcelona: Martinez Roca Ed. (see also [])

Vinas, Tonya (2002). “Best Practices – DuPont: Safety Starts at the Top.” 01 July. <>

Geller E. S. The Psychology of Safety: How to Improve Behaviors and Attitudes on the Job. Radnor, PA, Chilton Book Company, 1996.

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