The Evolution of Behavioural Safety

Refinement through research and experience

Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) is commonly associated with workforce engagement and information gathering, and while these elements are still key, the concept has evolved over the years as a result of experience and research. As it exists today, BBS can be applied to a range of behaviours and business aspects beyond safety, while it continues to reduce the rate of harmful incidents and hazard exposures in industrial settings.

The roots of Behaviour-Based Safety

Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) has been present in the industrial landscape in some form for nearly five decades, with theoretical roots in the 1930s. What has persisted in BBS over the years is change, as safety experts have delved more deeply into the causes of workplace incidents and applied new research and technologies to the issue along the way.
As early as the late 1970s, DEKRA was developing BAPP (Behavioural Accident Prevention Process), a peer-to-peer workforce observation programme based on an Inventory of Critical Behaviours (ICB) affecting safety. In the beginning, BAPP ran up against limitations by concentrating exclusively on workers and ignoring the crucial role of leadership in decision-making, role modelling, supporting safety and removing barriers to it. The process has evolved over time, and current BAPP models feature two-way communication between the workforce and leadership, with the latter serving as ambassadors and custodians of the safety programme.
Another pitfall of early BBS systems in general, was that they tended to focus on at-risk behaviours. As a result, observations easily slipped into a form of policing where culprits were caught misbehaving. With this emphasis on the negative, behaviour-based safety programmes could infect the work environment, giving rise to an atmosphere of mistrust and a lack of engagement.

Research contributions to BBS

In response, DEKRA soon began asking questions to understand the reasons behind observable behaviours. Research proposed the ABC (Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence) model, which takes context into account: working conditions drive behaviours and the consequences either reinforce or discourage them. Further research suggested that behaviours fall into distinct categories conditioned, again, by context: enabled, meaning the individual has full control and easy access, i.e. wearing a seatbelt in a modern day vehicle; difficult, as in older cars with seatbelts requiring installation in several steps; or unenabled (impossible)-- when the seatbelt either isn’t provided or is inoperative.
Building on these insights, DEKRA learned that an effective behaviour-based safety programme broadens the scope beyond basic peer observation to incorporate a custom ICB, quality observations (data), two-way feedback and actions based on the data collected. DEKRA’s BAPP technology was designed according to these findings and has been examined and verified by researchers at the Cambridge University Judge School of Business.
The Cambridge researchers also found ways to refine BBS further. Small groups of observers focusing on specific behaviours rather than individuals tasked with observing a broad range yields better results, for example, as does training specialised observers armed with advanced skills and checklists. Implementing a six-month rotation keeps observers fresh, and reducing administrative burden and simplifying data collection improves the process as well. These discoveries are reflected in the tools currently under development at DEKRA, including Adaptive BBS, a software platform intended to reinvigorate existing behaviour-based safety systems and provide a state-of-the-art solution for companies new to BBS.

The future of BBS

Current and future trends in BBS draw on neuroscience and technology, incorporating elements such as psychosocial factors, virtual coaching and even social media, as well as a flexible, customised approach to safety. BBS can be an effective tool for engagement and a communication platform that helps promote a feedback rich culture and strong interpersonal relationships. Clients have applied BAPP to areas unrelated to safety, such as financial or administrative departments, and seen improvements in culture and performance there, too. Behaviour-based safety continues to evolve across organisations and within them, as each company adapts the system according to its current level of maturity and preparedness. Ultimately, BBS evolves to become part of the fabric of the organisations that adopt it.

DEKRA Organisational Reliability

DEKRA Organisational Reliability is a behavioural change consultancy. Working in collaboration with our clients, our approach is to influence the safety culture with the aim of ‘making a difference’. We deliver the skills, methods, and motivation to change leadership attitudes, behaviours and decision-making among employees. Measurable sustainable improvement of safety outcomes is our goal. We are a service unit of DEKRA SE, a global leader in safety since 1925 with over 39,000 employees in 50 countries.
Author: Ian Stewart, Director of Consulting