The Safety Wizard: How Behavior-Based Programs Eliminate Accidents

Safety is often linked to attitude and education. Find out how a behavior-based safety program can change employee outlook and eliminate problems before they even begin.

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My plant is great. We haven’t had a safety incident in years, we haven’t had a safety violation in months, and our operators know pretty much everything about their jobs. We have a fantastic retention rate, we never have scheduling conflicts, we hardly see sick days and because everyone knows everyone, the atmosphere is almost worry-free.

Ahhh, let’s just soak that in for a moment.

The truth is this plant is either tucked away in the land of unicorns and rainbows, or it’s scripted for a TV sitcom. The harsh reality is this facility does not exist, and yet we all strive to create it. Want to get closer to that land of milk and honey? Consider using a behavior-based safety program at your facility.

The theory behind BBS originated with Herbert William Heinrich, who worked for Traveler's Insurance Company in the 1930s. Within his position, Heinrich reviewed accident reports completed by supervisors, and he concluded that almost 90 percent of workplace accidents, illnesses and injuries are directly attributable to a worker’s unsafe actions.

Most BBS programs center around three elements: identifying unsafe behavior, the reason(s) behind unsafe behavior and how to change behavior through internal or external safety policies or programs.

To identify unsafe or at-risk behaviors, plant managers can use either observation and/or data collection. A little of each approach often works best because although crunching numbers based on recordable injuries, first aids or near misses can give you myriad data, it won’t show you the behavior — it simply focuses on results. Also, you won’t be able to identify at-risk behaviors that haven’t caused incident or injury.

Observation means to simply get out in the plant, in the field or on the site and watch people. Observations can be announced or unannounced, and they can be made by management, peers, other departments or third parties. Some of the best BBS observations are unannounced and conducted peer-to peer because employees react naturally while performing daily operations.

Why (Root Cause)
With all the rules, regulations, signs and posters, why do people place themselves and others at risk? It usually boils down to education or attitude. Look at almost any unsafe or at-risk incident you have had in the past year, and most likely the root cause is one of those reasons. After you observe someone and find that education is at the root of unsafe behavior, the solution is generally an easy fix: Educate or train the employee in the correct practices and procedures.

Attitudes — on the other hand — can be tougher to identify or mitigate. As much as attitudes influence behavior, behaviors also influence attitude. An individual’s attitude — think stress at home, problems with a supervisor, money trouble — can cause problems. However, the behaviors of others can also affect attitude — someone did it differently, my way is faster, my way saves money. After you identify that attitude caused the at-risk behavior, you can move into changing behavior.

The most common way to implement change is through feedback and coaching. But the key is to effectively communicate change. If you are too light or passive, employees won't change. And if you come down like a hammer and bark orders or policies, you will create fear.

When delivered positively and effectively, feedback fosters open communication and provides a way to recognize safe — and unsafe — behavior. Peer-to-peer feedback is the most effective source of reinforcement because it’s more personnel.

Coaching develops and empowers people, equipping them with knowledge, skills, tools, opportunities and support. Although there are many ways to coach and many coaching models, all feedback and coaching is centered on several very important points:

  • Coaching requires a relationship that's built on trust, unfeigned communication and confidentiality.
  • Both parties need to be aware of the issue with agreed upon goals and expectations.
  • Coaching requires an action plan to move forward.

Look at your treatment plant. Are operators creating risks? Are they wearing proper PPE? Can you identify risks associated with working surfaces or platforms? Have you changed processes and created new risks?

In a wastewater treatment setting, a BBS program that focuses on identifying unsafe behavior and changing it through positive feedback and coaching can greatly reduce safety incidents. An effective behavior-based safety program empowers your employees to think, act, coach and change behavior before it results in a serious incident.

About the author
Nicholas Dufek is an environmental compliance, health and safety specialist for a large industrial manufacturing company in northeastern Wisconsin. He has worked in water resources, wastewater treatment, PCB removal/remediation, groundwater monitoring, construction and more.


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