Behavior-Based Safety: A Brief History

Andy Pritchard  |   June 23, 2022  |    5 min read

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    Even the most dedicated Safety Manager can’t be everywhere in the plant at once. Over time, even the best-trained employee develops the inability to recognize their own unsafe habits. Teachable moments to help improve the safety of your site come and go, and without a program to observe and correct them, these habits can lead to workplace injuries or worse.

    A Behavior-Based Safety Observation (BBSO) program empowers your staff to elevate the safety of their peers by giving them the tools to identify at-risk behavior and provide positive feedback. This, in turn, enables your leadership to coach and mentor effectively with the ultimate goal of building a safer work environment.

    The methodology continues to gain popularity because it is simple to implement and delivers immediate and sustainable results.

    A Brief History of Behavior-Based Safety

    The almost century-long history of Behavior-based safety began with research conducted by Herbert William Heinrich in the early thirties. Mr.Heinrich worked for Traveler’s Insurance Company in the early thirties. He reported that roughly 90% of all accidents, injuries, and illnesses were the result of what he called “worker errors.”*

    Research continued through to the 1970s when the term “Behavior-based safety” was coined by two safety professionals named Gene Earnest and Jim Palmer. They were employed by Proctor & Gamble and were working on a project to reduce injuries at their firm.

    By current day, it is now estimated that 6% of workplace accidents are caused by environmental factors - unsafe conditions, OSHA violations, dangerous equipment, etc., while the remaining 94% of accidents are caused by unsafe behavior.

    BBSO Graph

    BBSO Benefits

    BBSO programs help determine why at-risk behaviors occur on the job and the steps necessary to change at-risk behavior into safe behavior. The practice of Behavior-Based Safety can have a massive positive impact on the health and safety of your site. Programs are relatively simple to implement, they make safety more “top-of-mind” to staff and, ultimately, the program reduces incidents. 

    1) Simple to Implement

    When compared to other more advanced HSE programs, BBSO programs can be relatively easy to set up and manage. The practice requires staff to make and reports safety observations. Supervisors evaluate the reports to determine what safety practices need to be implemented. 

    2) Fostering a Safety-First Culture

    Surveys by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News in a 2015 survey reported that over half (52%) of HSE managers said that consistently safe employee behavior was having a major impact on their operations, while 54% said in the same survey that increasing employee participation and engagement was a priority. A healthy BBSO program addresses both of these major concerns. 

    A properly designed BBSO program should feel like a “grassroots” or “ground-up” movement, empowering and enabling your associates to take ownership of maintaining a safe work environment. This, in turn, improves employee morale and reduces turnover by promoting a sense of team spirit and accountability. 

    3) Preventing Incidents

    A BBSO program can have a staggering impact on the efficiency and bottom-line of an organization. The Center for Behavioral Safety released a case study where they tracked missed workdays due to injury for 18 months prior to, and 18 months following the implementation of a BBSO program. For a workforce of 450 employees, over two shifts, they found a staggering 86.3% reduction of missed days, from an average of 10.9 days/month down to 1.5 days/month.**


    ** Heinrich, H. W. (1931). Industrial accident prevention: a scientific approach. McGraw-Hill.

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