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Behavior-based Safety

Behavioral safety is the application of behavioral research on human performance in order to improve safety and health in the workplace. Applied behavior analysis is the application of the science of behavior change in order to understand the relationship between the behavior and the stimuli (antecedents) that trigger the behavior, and the consequences that follow, i.e., the positive or negative responses that occur immediately after the behavior, act or work task.

Sound behavioral safety programs include the following basic steps:

1. Behaviorally specify the desirable performance
For example, if we want to improve safe practices in the workplace, we first specify as behaviorally as possible, those specific practices. For example, correct lifting behavior. By specifying the observable criteria for a safe lift results in a measurement instrument that can be used to periodically sample safe lifting performance.

2. Measure safety performance
Using the criteria for safe work performance, you can now periodically sample and measure safety performance against those criteria. The measurements are recorded and become part of a data base; a cumulative log of performance.

3. Shape safe performance through feedback and other consequences

Behavioral research on learning teaches us powerful lessons about how to teach and build performance improvement. First among these lessons is the power of consequences. Consequences shape performance. One very powerful consequence is feedback on workplace performance. Properly designed and used, performance feedback will produce learning and positive performance changes - often very dramatically.

As a practical matter, once measurement takes place, a sound behavioral safety program will provide timely, usually immediate, feedback on workplace safety behavior to the employees whose work is being observed. It’s not delayed for lengthy periods of time. The feedback should focus on positive gains in performance, not negative performance. It needs to be predictable and certain. It should also be delivered in ways that are meaningful to the people who are receiving it.

The posting of graphs of the safe performance over time is another form of feedback that allows for coaching and feedback on safety performance. As teams and departments improve the levels of safe practices, celebrations can be used to further acknowledge and reinforce safe performance.
In order to be successful in a behavioral safety approach it is important to follow the basic principals as explained above. In addition there are critical implementation issues that also must be addressed. Specific skills such as feedback and coaching are paramount, technical knowledge and skill in identifying and describing behaviors, skill in conducting behavioral analysis and in data analysis are required.

To further illustrate these concepts consider the following:


An employee must periodically check the level of a liquid in a tank by looking over the top edge of the tank. The tank is too high to do so from the ground so employees frequently lean a wood pallet against the side of the tank to use for a ladder. The company has a policy against this procedure; however, they have not been successful in getting employees to comply. The risk in performing the task in this fashion is obviously a potential fall caused by the pallet slipping out from or breaking due to the employee’s weight.

Behavioral Analysis:

At Risk Behavior:

  • Using a pallet for a ladder

Antecedents (Triggers):

  • Process requires level to be checked
  • Production Press requires task to be completed quickly
  • No ladder nearby
  • Employee was taught by a senior employee to do it this way
  • Everyone else does it this way
  • Inconsistent enforcement of policy by supervisor (supervisor has turned a blind eye)

Consequences of At Risk Behavior

  • Gets the job done and done quickly
  • It’s easier, less effort required than finding a ladder that’s never nearby
  • Receives tacit approval of supervisor since production pressures are met and supervisor does not address the risk
  • Receives approval of peers since task gets completed, they do not have to do it, and it helps meet production pressures
  • Employee may experience an accident
  • Employee may be disciplined for not following policy

Consequences are what motivate the behavior to repeat itself in the future. Given these antecedents and past consequences experienced, the next time the employee experiences the antecedents again the behavior that will ensue will be fairly predictable – the at risk behavior of using the pallet for a ladder.

The next step in this analysis is to evaluate the power that each of the consequences have in motivating the “At Risk Behavior” to repeat itself.

Since the employee does not perceive a risk (has never been hurt yet) nor have they been disciplined, for not following the correct policy, the last two consequences have very little power in persuading the employee in not engaging in the behavior. The consequences in the view of the employee are negative, unlikely to occur and if they occur at all, are off in the distant future (negative, later, unlikely).

The first four consequences, however, are viewed as positive, they are more certain to occur, and are immediate. These positive, soon, and certain consequences are powerful and are what motivates behavior. The company can establish all the rules and training they want, but until they deal with the underlying reasons for the behavior they will not be successful on a consistent long term basis. The solution in this case is not to fight human nature by stepping up enforcement but to work with it by fixing a permanent ladder, installing a platform with stairs or a simple site gauge on the side of the tank.

The worst thing that the company could do is to immediately start disciplining employees without first addressing the root causes of the behavior. Doing so only disciplines employees for something that the organizational culture not only condoned but also inadvertently encouraged. This would further weaken the site safety culture resulting in mistrust, lack of respect, a feeling of them vs. us, they don’t care, etc.

This simple example demonstrates the benefits of combining a behavioral approach with your safety and health efforts in order to optimize the performance that you’re looking for. This is just one application of the behavioral sciences to safety and health. It can be used in other ways such as:

  • Root cause accident investigations,
  • Trend analysis of your accident data (behavioral inventory),
  • Safety leadership development
  • Job safety analysis, and
  • Employee observation and feedback mechanisms.

A behavioral approach to safety is a powerful adjunct to your current safety efforts when implemented and integrated in the correct fashion.