Is Behavior-Based Safety Too Limited for Incident Investigation?

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Is Behavior-Based Safety Too Limited for Incident Investigation?

Any safety professional should be familiar with the tenets of behavior-based safety (BBS). It has a storied history, all the way back to the early 1930s with research conducted by Herbert William Heinrich, who worked for Traveler’s Insurance Company. His research showed that roughly 90% of all workplace accidents, injuries, and illnesses were due to what he called “worker errors.” BBS became very popular by the 1970s and 80s, with the increasingly familiar BBS ‘iceberg’ diagram, i.e. demonstrating that the vast majority of behavior-related issues in the workplace were not easily visible or identifiable, as much as 90% of an iceberg is below water. Culture surveys that attempt to take the ‘pulse’ regarding attitudes toward safety in the workplace also proliferated.

But BBS, with its strong emphasis on behavior in safety management, has been controversial from the very beginning, and continues to be so. Is its ‘singular’ vision too limited with regard to incident investigation? OSHA certainly seems to think so. In fact, its assessment of BBS in incident investigation is not only critical, it’s downright damning. This stance is clear from this statement by OSHA in its guideline titled ‘Incident Investigations: A Guide for Employers’ as released in December, 2015: “incident investigations that follow a systems approach are based on the principle that the root causes of an incident can be traced back to failures of the programs that manage safety and health in the workplace. This approach is fundamentally different from a behavioral safety approach, which incorrectly assumes that the majority of workplace incidents are simply the result of “human error” or “behavioral” failures.”

Is this dismissive declaration by the federal agency entirely valid with regard to BBS in incident investigation? Is a BBS approach really that simplistic a methodology in incident investigation? With all due respect to OSHA, it is contended here that this is not a valid nor a fair assessment of BBS in this regard. Whilst OSHA is correct in mandating that incident investigation works best within a systemic context, it is folly to so diminish what BBS can contribute to an incident investigation process.

For one thing, there is no denying that behavior does almost invariably play a part, whether central or adjunct, to the causes of most incidents. The OSHA statement appears to shrug behavior off, which is odd. For another, whilst OSHA does well to stress the importance of ascertaining root causes for a given incident, it does so at what appears to be the exclusion of behavioral factors, as if those factors are but incidental to the incident’s ‘main event,’ i.e. its root causes. However, using BBS principles, one is able to firmly ascertain what adverse behavioral factors may have occurred and, from there, better understand and be able to assess what the root causes might be – and why so.

And therein lies the problem with the OSHA statement. It’s too black and white, too extreme. It suggests that either there can be a BBS approach or a systemic approach. Decide! But that choice need not be made. Rather, BBS principles can be used in conjunction with a systemic approach. The two need not be mutually exclusive. To diminish BBS to that extent is to undermine its worth, i.e. in providing the discipline to establish and assess behavioral factors and, even more fundamentally, prevailing safety culture issues within a company. Those factors alone could be invaluable as part of an inclusive incident investigation process.

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