• An Image Slideshow
  • An Image Slideshow
  • An Image Slideshow
  • An Image Slideshow
  • An Image Slideshow
  • An Image Slideshow
  • An Image Slideshow

A Brief Overview of Behavioral Safety

Since the late 1980's - early 1990’s Behavioral Safety has fast become an established weapon in the war on workplace accidents, as its use has helped many companies to dramatically slice through their accident plateau, something that hitherto could only be dreamed of. A vast body of scientific research testifies to the effectiveness of Behavioral Safety initiatives across a wide range of industries in many countries. Many companies, for example, have experienced 40-75 percent falls in their accident rates within the first six to twelve months of using Behavioral Safety.

Given that 96 percent of all workplace accidents are triggered by unsafe behavior, most will be aware that reducing accidents and improving safety performance can only be achieved by systematically focusing upon those unsafe behaviors in the workplace. For example, ducking under or climbing over assembly lines to reach the controls, not re-stocking the ppe store, not reporting machinery defects, etc., are all unsafe behaviors. These are in the direct control of the people engaging in them, and therefore can be targeted for improvement via Behavioral Safety.

Clarifying the Objectives

Most companies have one objective in mind when considering the use of Behavioral Safety: Reducing Incident Rates. This means companies are concerned to ensure people are not being hurt and reducing the associated costs. Other common objectives surround the involvement of the workforce in the companies safety efforts to help acheive a 'Safety Partnership'.

Locate the problem

Behavioral Safety processes attempt to identify the small proportion of unsafe behaviors implicated in the majority of accidents. Commonly, this is done by examining a facilities incident rates for the previous 2-3 years to identify the 'repeat' behaviors involved. Some will use 'Pareto' analysis to separate these 'repeat' behaviors into groups (e.g. Line of Fire, Body Positioning) that occur 'significantly' more than others.   

Some will then conduct a 'functional analysis' to identify the drivers for the 'identified' unsafe or 'at-risk' behaviors and the consequences to those involved that maintain these behaviors. The purpose is to decide whether or not 'exernal factors' such as poor standard operating procedures or indadequate PPE, 'drives' people to behave unsafely. Once found, attempts are made to 'correct' the negative workplace factors so that it is natural for people to behave safely. In principle, people often behave unsafely when they do not know what, when or how to do something: i.e. they need training or education of some sort. The other main reason is related to 'obstacles' or blockages to performing safely (e.g. the right equipment is unavailable). If the conditions are optimal, then people often behave safely because they want to (e.g. take a short-cut to get the job done quicker). Behavioral Safety specialists will usually try to identify and put in place those 'drivers' and consequences that will support the desired safe behaviors.

Execute the Change Strategy

To obtain people's 'buy-in', a series of 'briefings' should be conducted that inform everybody about the implementation of the intended process, what it means to them and what they will be asked to do.

The safe behaviors and/or the results of safe behaviors (i.e., safe conditions) idenified from the incident records are placed on workgroup or location specific checklists. Some will restrict the number to 3-20 specific behaviors, while others use a 'generic' list of behaviors (e.g. Line of Fire, Eyes on Path, etc.) on an 'Observation Card' in an attempt to cover every possible 'unsafe' or 'at-risk' behavior. Whichever type of observation instrument is used, those who engage in the behaviors should agree the behaviors on them are important and within their control.

Other types of checklists should be developed for managerial behaviors (Senior, Middle and Front-line Supervision) and support staff (e.g. finance, purchasing and supply, engineering, etc.,) that support safety in general and the Behavioral Safety process in particular. These should be developed in conjunction with the different parties and are usually restirected to 10 or so behaviors that these people can undertake each and every week. The impact can be enormous (see Safety Leadership in Construction for an example).

Typically, trained observers make use of the Safety Behavior Observation instruments to monitor and record the safety behavior of their colleagues on a regular basis (e.g., daily). Observers may also (and often do) provide verbal feedback at the point of observation to facilitate corrective actions. Managers and support staff complete their Support Checklists once per week. All the recorded observations are usually computed to provide feedback.

Assess Current progress

The recorded observations form the basis for feedback via graphical charts or written performance summaries, so individuals or workgroups can track their progress against self-set or assigned targets. Depending on the design of the process the feedback either goes to the people in the workgroups themselves each and every week, or to a 'Steering Committee' each and every month. Some also provide a 'monthly overview to the site management team.  

Some compute a 'Percent Safe' score for each workgroup and/or highlight the best/worst scoring behaviors, while others simply present 'Participation Rates' (i.e. the number of active observers in a facility). There are numerous types of 'Key Performance Indicators' for Behavioral Safety, but these are not used as widely as they could be. Some but not all types of process build in 'celebrations' for rmilestone achievements

Review and Adapt

Regular and thorough 'reviews' of the Behavioral Safety process are essential to ensure sustainability. Often these do not occur. In my view, there should be regular independent reviews in the first 2 years of implementation (e.g. bi-annually or quarterly) and annually thereafter. These reviews should be conducted by knowledgeable people (in-house or outside 'expert). The results of the review are used to adapt ot 'fine-tune' the process so that it continues to achieve its objectives.


It must be stressed that a Behavioral Safety process is not a ‘cure all panacea’ that replaces other safety efforts. Unfortunately, they are often seen in this way, even when there is still much to do to improve the working environment and the organization’s safety systems. Consequently, an ill-defined process can create a lot of unnecessary tension. This is because employees believe that management are only concerned with trivial issues compared to safety improvements that require capital expenditure or considerable effort. In turn, this leads to employees viewing Behavioral Safety as a convenient way for management to dodge their safety responsibilities and apportion blame to the workforce.

To avoid problems, a ‘behavioral safety’ process will meet certain essential criteria (Sulzer-Azeroff& Lischeid, 1999). Although, the widespread use of behavioral safety is welcome there is a very real danger that some systems do not incorporate these essential ingredients. The factors for success and typical outcomes are on the next two pages.