Is Behavior Based Safety (BBS) Credible? or, ‘Don’t Mention the War’
Another controversial little gem by Dr Robert Long – If you liked this article then you should read the whole series: CLICK HERE. I highly recommend you check out Rob’s new book “RISK MAKES SENSE” – click on image to read precise
The sixth episode of Fawlty Towers is remembered for silly walks, a lost hamster, a failed fire drill and the classic line ‘don’t mention the war’. In this episode Basil advises Polly not mention the war to German guests and then proceeds to smother them in war tirades, an imitation of Adolf Hitler and goose stepping Nazis. With some Basil-like caution and awareness of offence, I offer the following brief review of Behaviour Based Safety.
It is important to state at the outset that the following critique does not seek to dismiss BBS out of hand but rather put it in perspective. BBS has had some success over the years, making a good contribution to the evolution of safety management. I was once its convert. However, we need to remember that BBS is A system not THE system of safety management.
The expression ‘behavior based safety’ was first coined by Dr Scott E. Geller in 1979 but many for some strange reason, seek to authenticate BBS by anchoring its evolution to Herbert Heinrich in the 1930s. BBS was most influenced by developing interest in Organisational Behavior Analysis and Behavior Modification in the 1970s. More recently Geller has joined DuPont and has rebadged BBS as ‘People-Based Safety’, ‘Values-Based Safety’ or ‘Human-Based Safety’. This change in language indicates a sense of concern about the identification with behaviourism. Regardless of the badge, the model remains focused on behavior and error management. For example: in recent publications by DuPont, the emphasis is on ACTS (Acting, Coaching, Thinking Seeing). The focus remains on actions and behaviours, not much has changed in 40 years.
From its modest beginnings in the 1980s BBS has developed into a cult-like awakening for many. Indeed, BBS has developed its’ own zealotry and fundamentalist-like blindness. Criticism is often met with distain for the uninitiated. My concern here is not so much with the tenets of BBS but the blindness associated with its religious-like adherence, something akin to offering criticism of Apple to a Mac fanatic. Example one: I read a brochure last week from a consultant for DuPont who claimed he had implemented BBS in long wall coal mining, civil construction and a range of other high risk environments without an LTI over 11 years! Example two: an Australian consultant advertises prominently on his website that he can provide an ‘Accident Free Future’ in the workplace.
Both of these examples are nothing short of delusional. With what world of fallible humans are each of these examples associated? Fallibility and wrongology (Schultz, K., 2010: Being Wrong) are essential to humanness. Rather than construct delusional stories about human infallibility we need to embrace fallibility and better understand it. The more blinkered BBS is to its own fallibility and blind spots, the greater its delusion about saving the world and self-inflicted blindness to safety maturity.
Lets look at some of the blind spots of BBS.
· BBS understands humans in behaviourist terms, as the sum of inputs and outputs. All the evidence from social psychology, cognitive psychology and neuropsychology demonstrates that such a model is extraordinarily deficient.
· BBS holds to a mechanistic and materialist model of human engagement. The idea that humans are ‘cog like’, responding exclusively to the control of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors is not supported by the evidence. Humans make decisions and judgments for a range of reasons which are not explicable in behaviorist terms. For example: tens of millions of humans throughout history, affected by spiritual beliefs, have ‘acted’ against the logic of self preservation. Such behavior defies BBS logic.
· BBS is a simplistic and determinist model of human learning and education. Human learning is about much more than the sum of what is ‘injected’ in and ‘extracted’ out. Everything about humanness is complex despite our wish for it to be otherwise. The truth is, there is no ‘silver bullet’ and even the seeking of one is a denial of humanness.
· BBS is weak in its acknowledgement of the social creation of behavior and the psychosocial creation of human judgment and decision making about risk. Studies of mass movements, gambling, addictions and fundamentalisms show that reward and punishment are not reliable indicators or predictors of behavior.
· BBS appeals to the naivety and micro-management of many CEOs. What a great way to sell a safety program than to tell a CEO that a program will guarantee and accident free future for their organisation. CEOs don’t want to be told about complexity, ‘no easy fixes’ and longitudinal culture and learning change. BBS is an easy sell to an immature leadership who wants to believe it’s easy and BBS is big business.
· The anthropology of BBS has a trajectory of infallibility. The simplistic fixation on the elimination of error and the belief in the elimination of all error brings BBS into conflict with anthropologies of fallibility.
· The language of BBS ‘primes’ participants to focus on measurement and failure. Unfortunately BBS is a philosophy of false hope and shifting definition. The focus on measurement has resulted in a whole industry of ‘word smithing’ so that: injuries are not counted; reporting goes ‘underground’ and proponents of BBS play games of definitional gymnastics.
· BBS language emphasises policing and behavior change to the exclusion of ‘ownership’, learning and self determination. When BBS systems fail, the only solution is more BBS.
So is BBS a credible model of safety management? Yes, BBS is worthy of acknowledgement and success, but it also has some major flaws and blind spots.
It’s about time organisations and safety leaders woke up to the complexity of humanness and became far more eclectic and aware of psychosocial factors in safety management. Did I mention the war?