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.”