Behavior-based Safety — A Sustainability Advantage

Jul 17th, 2010 | By | Category: Health and Safety, Quick Reads

It is difficult to attend a health and safety conference or interact with other professionals without hearing the term “sustainability.”  Energy audits, alternative fuels, assurance of supplier reliability and reputation, and resource management fill our strategic thinking and external communications.  Some very large and influential retail organizations, such as Wal-Mart, are now demanding extensive evidence of sustainable performance, including environmental, health and safety (EHS) performance and commitment.

It is possible to feel a little unsettled on the question of how sustainability is demonstrated in day-to-day health and safety practice.  We do know that availability of skilled employees is clearly a “sustainable resource.”   We also know that there are ways to demonstrate safeguarding of this resource that can differentiate one supplier of any goods and services from another.  Behavior-based safety is one of these differentiators.

After understanding the basic concepts, almost any type of employer would benefit from implementing behavior-based safety.  In the 1930s, William Heinrich of Travelers Insurance concluded that almost 90% of thousands of accidents reviewed were caused by unsafe acts.  People’s attitudes about working safely, their awareness of expectations, their training and management sincerity were all potential causes of these unsafe acts. Behavior-based safety seeks to address and control each of these potential causes.

Despite diligent employer efforts in implementing the classic elements of health and safety programs (safety committees, inspections, training programs, posters, and incentives), injury and illness records are often frustratingly inconsistent from year to year.  In this “sustainability” climate, poor safety records are a competitive disadvantage.  

Injuries still occur in manufacturing operations, packaging, trucking, research and development, the warehouse, the chemical reactor floor, and even seemingly “safe” environments such as marketing and sales offices.  These injuries continue to occur because employers have not gotten to the root of the problem: authentic individual employee commitments to their own safety and that of their coworkers and subcontractors. Individual commitment, management commitment, and a complete understanding of safe work requirements are at the heart of behavior-based safety.

Some chemical and petrochemical companies implement very rigorous and data-intensive behavior-based safety programs, in which even near misses undergo root cause analyses. They also involve individual safety commitments in the work environment, work observations against known safety requirements, constructive response and a continuing improvement process.  Behavior-based safety can be implemented to some degree in every work setting and should not be discounted in non-traditional work places.

To be successful, behavior-based safety should be implemented as a natural extension of existing programs, not as a campaign to grow weary of.  Even engineering companies with excellent safety records can implement behavior-based safety.  Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a global environmental, health and safety consultancy, has implemented such a process in its complex remediation and construction projects.  ERM is gradually implementing it now at an appropriate level in all areas of it field work.

This safety commitment / peer observation process is not without challenges and should be entered with a long term commitment and view. Behavior-based safety requires enforcement of daily site commitments, continuing implementation when daily risks hardly change, and keeping up with data input.  Ultimately the growing pains of program implementation lead to a more reliable and consistent reduction in injuries and illnesses because employees are engaged not only in their own safety awareness but in acting as “their brother’s keeper” through the observation and coaching process. 

The most sophisticated companies are now scrutinizing vendors and providers as never before for “sustainability” in supply of quality goods and services. The potential internal impact and external credibility of a behavior-based safetysystem should certainly be considered as sustainability strategies are developed and implemented.

About the Author

Joe Baker, CIH, CSP, is in the Exton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. office of Environmental Resources Management. He has worked for ERM for more than 20 years, including 5 years recently as ERM’s Global Director of Health and Safety, where he developed harmonized management programs across all of ERM’s operations.

Photograph: Green Glass Mosaic 1 by Michaela Kobyakov, Linz, Austria.

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