The BS of BS
Every time some antiquated BS about Behavioural Safety (BS) (https://safetyrisk.net/kicking-the-behaviourism-habit/) comes out you wonder just how more backward this industry can go. Here is this antiquated theory that’s been smashed by so many as a false construct being paraded by Safety as some kind of relevant methodology. An example is the discussion here: What Is Behavioral Safety? (Workplace Examples and Strategies)
One of the essentials in BBS is to assume everything and define nothing (https://safetyrisk.net/the-curse-of-behaviourism/ ). Often these discussions involve assumptions about: error, violations, habits, consciousness, memory, knowledge, situational factors, judgment and mistakes. None of these are defined and at no time is the nature of the human unconscious ever considered. In BS many complex concepts are just wielded out as if all these things are simple and understood. It’s easy in BBS, just state some naïve BS assertion and assume it has one meaning for all, its common sense. Let’s take for example this idea of ‘slips in judgment’.
What is a slip in judgment? Is this a moment when rational thinking changes to irrational thinking? Is this aRational thinking? Is this when humans use heuristics to make judgments? Is this the dialectic between the unconscious and conscious? Is this when something intended is not realized? Is this when something imagined is not realized? Is this daydreaming, lucid dreaming? And what is this ‘slip’? Is this some emergence, failure, drift, change, interruption, disruption or accident? And what if a slip proves advantageous, is that now not an error? All of these and many more questions lay behind the naïve simplistic discussion in BS, which of course makes it BS.
Similar assumptions are a made about definitions of safety and unsafety, unintentionality and habituality.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if BS sought to explain intentionality (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285199810_The_Significance_of_Intentionality/link/59965e750f7e9b91cb0963b6/download) or habit (https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-97529-0 ; https://safetyrisk.net/understanding-habit-habituation-and-change/ )? Such complex notions of human decision making such as intentionality and habit are just glossed over in BS whilst at the same time confessing to ‘imperfect systems, fallibility and luck’. Oh yes, we want to eat our BS cake without any BS in it.
Why is it that Safety is attracted to this simplistic delusional BS stuff? Of course, BS imagines that behaviours can be measured, which they cannot. More so, thinking, ethics, motivations, emotions, perception and attitudes cannot be measured either, but BS never talks about these things. BS has absolutely no idea about the complexities of motivation, perception or the human unconscious and just imagines that humans are the sum of inputs and outputs.
Then comments like this ‘Human error is not a cause of failure – it is the effect or the symptom of a deeper-rooted issue’, hmmm. And what issue would this be? When you are in BS world you can BS about BS as if decision making is simple and behaviours are evidence of thinking.
Then this – ‘Think about the influencing factors that cause the human to undertake that error’. Hmmm, I can think of over 500 social, cognitive and unconscious influences that BS doesn’t even know of or discuss. How wonderful to have one’s head buried in the BS sand in blissful ignorance in BS delusion (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-naivety-and-the-delusions-of-kiss/) as if humans are the sum of inputs and outputs.
Of course BS loves BS language and discourse such as: mistakes, errors, violations and error but has no explanation of the driving dynamics of human decision making. What makes a fallible human tick? Why do humans do what they do? What is the human unconscious and what drives human ‘being’? Nup, it’s all about behaviours, because these are easy to punish.
Just remember don’t ask any tough or critical questions of BS, that would upset the BS applecart. And so BS now fills that applecart not with apples but more BS to prove its own assumptions and simplistic worldview and when nothing changes just retreats back to the BS (big stick) for more BS about BS!
Rob Long says
Bob, always happy to chat with people who want to learn and ask genuine questions. Happy to send you some complementary books, email me firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to learn more I offer a free introductory module to SPoR https://cllr.com.au/product/an-introduction-to-the-social-psychology-of-risk-unit-1-free-online-module/
Current group in mid-module
Next group starts in November
Very interesting discussion. I really enjoyed it.
I like the point about simply defining what exactly a root cause is, and the difficulties we have getting consensus on that term. Kind of like what I’ve been saying about BBS – there’s many definitions or ideas about what constitutes such a system.
I like the point about investigations often not going further up the chain of command than the immediate supervisor, and also about team members/investigators focusing on their own areas of bias. Two important, and all too common pitfalls to be on the look out for.
I’m still of the opinion that causes must be identified in order to put measures in place to prevent recurrence, but it’s true that we often don’t hit the mark as well as we could. I definitely agree that there is never just a single cause.
I’m glad I’ve found this site, and will definitely go through all of the articles and discussions to get new insights.
To be clear, this was a response to the video posted by Rob.
Once again, it appeared as a stand-alone comment.
Rob Long says
Rob Long says
Yes Bob, I find the way replies don’t work quite annoying too. Greg and my take on root cause. BTW, the court rarely finds root cause and more often finds no conclusive cause. Root cause is an invention of safety
1) OK, so there are causal factors of incidents, some deeper and more systemic than others, which are within the organization’s sphere of influence, or even directly within their legal responsibilities to manage, and these causes can (and should) be pro-actively identified in risk assessments, but also reactively during incident, or near-miss, investigations. Of course, we can go the whole ‘infinite regress of causality’, if we want to be all metaphysical, but for the purposes of HSE management, the term ‘Root Cause’ is an acceptable term as I’ve described it. Not perfect, but useful in the vast majority of cases, as long as it is followed through and addressed.
2) As for the Christopher Hitchens quote, that was from Bernard Corden. There appears to be an issue with how replies are managed. I replied directly to his comment, but it appeared as a stand-alone comment, which is probably what led you to believe my comment was directed at yourself.
Rob Long says
Thanks Bob. There is no such thing as Root Cause and it seems strange that BBS attracts certain kinds of people and certain kinds of people are attracted to it. BTW, I never quote Hitchens and have no interest in his ideology.
1) If people in leadership positions behave brutally toward their personnel, in response to observations or data from a BBS system, then they are the brutes, not the system. In the absence of such a system, they’d inevitably find ways to be brutes because that’s their nature. I’ve never encountered a BBS system which prescribes harsh discipline as a form of reinforcement. I’ve seen harsh punishment issued by a-hole managers and supervisors. That’s different.
2) BBS systems, or similar, do not supersede robust root cause analysis processes. Anyone who thinks they do should definitely not be analyzing root causes. The only thing any kind of observation/BBS system should contribute to any RCA is indicators, i.e. areas which may need to be explored, which must still pass robust logical tests in order to be considered candidates as immediate, underlying, or root causes.
3) As implied in (2), I’ve never claimed that the data from BBS or observation systems should be considered robust enough for anything resembling scientific rigor. It can merely serve as indicators of possible trends which can be addressed proactively with things like awareness campaigns, onsite coaching, discussion at HSE meetings etc, or reactively as indicators for possible areas to explore for incident causes.
4) The people you’re describing with your Christopher Hitchens quote are the very same abusive, dysfunctional ‘leaders’ I’ve repeatedly described in my posts on this discussion. They are the experts in concocting elaborate window dressing in order to blow smoke up top management’s and clients asses. Basically they expend more effort setting up smoke and mirrors, than they could by simply applying effective supervision and leadership. They are the ones who think they are showing everybody how tough they are on safety, by being tough on the safety guy. These are not well-intentioned individuals. So, to pin the failure of what some would describe as a BBS system on them is somewhat fallacious, because they’re actively working against it.
Anyway, I think we’ve exhausted this debate.
I’m certainly no major fan of BBS systems as they are often sold – as miraculous. solve-all systems. I think that there’s a middle ground somewhere, where the leadership and the workforce appreciate the fact that safety performance/behaviour is inextricably linked to work performance/behaviour, and a degree of understanding of human behaviour can help us in this area, as long as it’s not over-complicated and over-sold as definitive, and we understand that people are not machines / robots to be programmed and engineered.
Correction to part of my post “These are not well-intentioned individuals. So, to pin the failure of what some would describe as a BBS system on them is somewhat fallacious, because they’re actively working against it.”
Of course these are the people responsible for a system being perceived as useless, or even brutal. These people are the problem, and they are the ones who hinder efforts to improve safety performance through their dysfunctional, abusive leadership style.
My intent was to state that declaring a system completely useless, even harmful, due to folk like this, is what I feel is fallacious.
Rob Long says
Hi Bob, the ideology of behaviourism is anchored in a destructive assumptions of what it is to be human and has since its inception been torn to shreds by many in a variety of disciplines. The fact that safety continues to seek solace in its promises and attributions speaks much for a poorly educated industry that seeks zero and certainty, control and power in numerics. The latest 1% campaign is a classic example of an industry that has no idea what to do, captivated by numerics and metrics and completely alienated from the fundamentals of helping and care.
For me the key to safety is NOT starting with erroneous behaviouralist assumptions about the nature of ‘being’ or ‘personhood’. Humans are not objects in a system but rather systems are created to serve humans, similarly humans are not objects. Just read any BBS literature and ask yourself what is missing.
Given the fundamental elements of BBS programs involve a stimulus and response relationship and operant conditioning your response further confirms the futility of BBS and reinforces a maxim from William Hazlitt………”Rules and models destroy genius and art.”
Perhaps his abilities were so well well developed by that stage, that he was able to imagine how the music would sound without having to hear it.
From a neuroscience/psychology perspective, it’s certainly fascinating, but I don’t feel that BBS is inadequate due to it not being able to explain this aspect of Beethoven’s late works.
Over the past three decades I have witnessed the brutality of behaviour based safety across many resources projects and the only evidence provided regarding its effectiveness has been a tenuous correlation with a reduction in lost time or total recordable injury frequency rates, which are inexplicably linked to safety performance bonuses. Furthermore, any statistician will reiterate that correlation does not imply causation, which is reinforced by the late Leonard Cohen….”Do not choose a coward’s explanation that hides behind the cause and the effect.”
BBs does not measure safety performance and merely involves counting and converting quantitative data into qualitative categories, which severely restricts its utility. If it is so effective why haven’t BBS providers submitted such programs to the Cochrane Library for a systematic review?
BBS is merely a nostrum and when safety evangelists proclaim its benefits and extol its success it often reminds me of an old quotation from the late Christopher Hitchens…….”Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.”
BBS is underpinned by stimuli response and operant conditioning via positive or negative reinforcement although the later and most impressive works of Beethoven were produced when he was profoundly deaf.
With respect, I’m not sure I understand how or why BBS should even have to explain such a thing.
Can you perhaps elaborate?
This comment was in response to bernardcorden’s post quoted below, but it seems to have appeared as a standalone comment –
“BBS somewhat spectacularly, fails to explain how Beethoven’s late quartets were a conditioned response to his prevailing circumstances, especially during the final decade of a somewhat illustrious career in classical music.”
“Bob, I have no problem with observations at all. Observing is a matter of the psychology of perception and its not neutral either. It depends what the purpose of that observation is. I am happy to be watched by anyone who has a caring and helping attitude. The trouble is that is not the purpose of BBS indeed, the idea of safety being a ‘helping’ activity doesn’t exist, safety is known as being a policing activity after a long history of brutalising people in the name of good. This is what happens after years of engineering and science directing the nature of the industry.”
1) Is an observation system, where observations of behaviour and the resulting discussions/agreements are recorded, respecting anonymity, in order to establish trends which can be addressed by leaders/managers/supervisors, either through training, updating procedures, providing engineering solutions etc etc, a BBS system?
2) If the system described in (1) is NOT a BBS system, please describe exactly what would qualify as a BBS system?
3) Any organization whose leadership has either knowingly ‘internally outsourced’ their authority/disciplinary roles to the safety department, or which has been so asleep at the wheel to allow the safety department to assume a level of authority they simply should not have (with the ‘brutal’ consequences you mentioned) is either ignorant or incompetent, and in both cases it is the abject failure of the organization’s leadership which allowed this atmosphere of brutality to flourish. If the organization’s leadership is the one doing the ‘brutalizing’ using the information gathered by the safety department via the BBS system, then once again, I refer to my comment about BBS (and similar systems) being prone to abuse and dysfunction in the hands of abusive and dysfunctional people (and this includes the members of the safety department, if they have been allowed to become tyrants in the absence of any substantive efforts at true leadership by those who are actually meant to be leading)
4) I’ve only ever seen safety viewed as ‘policing’ in a few scenarios – a) when there is weak leadership who mean well, but just don’t want to be viewed as the bad guy by the workforce yet they want to show upper management or the client that there are efforts underway to ‘enforce’ safety, so they patronize the safety folks into being their ‘eyes and ears’ and sometimes even their little attack dog. b) when the leadership are simply ignorant and don’t know any better, and have allowed a few tyrants in the safety department too gain much influence c) when the leadership are actually somewhat malevolent, and obsessed with performance at all costs, yet are streetwise enough to know they have to blow smoke up top management’s, and the client’s collective asses, and they talk a good talk, and have basically done the same as the managers in scenario (a) but for not-so-well-intended reasons.
Rob Long says
Bob, unfortunately safety is not known for its informalism but rather its obsession with controls and paperwork, because it trusts no-one other than itself. Any method of informality means a loss of control and privileging the other, not something Safety wants, especially the giving away of power.
Isn’t this a little bit of anthropomorphism?
I get it that certain personality types can be drawn to certain professions, so I’ll refer back to my comment about systems being prone to abuse and dysfunction in the hands of abusive and dysfunctional people.
It’s not so much the system, but those who develop and apply it who may be projecting their own insecurities and dysfunction onto it.
I’ll say this though. Given that a failure to provide a safe place or system of work can have serious legal ramifications, it’s understandable that a certain amount of non-negotiable controls and paperwork etc can be a reasonable expectation. I do concede that this can very easily get way out of hand, and can lead to a perception that ‘safety’ is just so unnecessarily burdensome.
I’d say there’s a middle ground where reasonable measures are in place, for good reason, but is admittedly quite rare these days.
Rob Long says
Bob, I have no problem with observations at all. Observing is a matter of the psychology of perception and its not neutral either. It depends what the purpose of that observation is. I am happy to be watched by anyone who has a caring and helping attitude. The trouble is that is not the purpose of BBS indeed, the idea of safety being a ‘helping’ activity doesn’t exist, safety is known as being a policing activity after a long history of brutalising people in the name of good. This is what happens after years of engineering and science directing the nature of the industry.
BBS somewhat spectacularly, fails to explain how Beethoven’s late quartets were a conditioned response to his prevailing circumstances, especially during the final decade of a somewhat illustrious career in classical music.
Firstly, not every job can be done shielded from all observation. In fact, most can’t. We aren’t talking quantum physics here. We are talking about jobs done in plain sight, open for all to see. There is a point at which if a person is so freaked out by being watched, to a point where they cannot function safely, that we may need to conclude that they’re simply not right for the job, or at least need more coaching, which requires….observation.
What is the difference between a supervisor overseeing each step of a task, and an observer from another department simply watching? I’d say if there’s going to be any pressure, it will be more so when the supervisor is watching, and that’s is what supervisors are required to do on a daily basis. It’s a bit of a catch-22 isn’t it?
Granted, if someone simply rolls in to a worksite, doesn’t announce what they are there for, and starts ticking off a checklist, while shaking their head disapprovingly, then they’re the problem, not the one performing the task. So, on this version, and similar versions, of the scenario, I’m in agreement with you.
My issue with BBS is not so much the interaction between the observer, and those who are being observed, it’s more with how management sometimes have knee-jerk reactions and go all ‘Chicken Little: the sky is falling’. This type of high-level dysfunction should not deter colleagues and co-workers having a system in place to keep each other honest. You do need strong site management to keep this from happening, but when it works, a relatively informal BBS system works well.
The only redeeming feature of BBS is that it tells us much more about the observer than the observed.
With respect, there’s equal chance of there being ‘a-holes’ on both sides of the system.
Rob Long says
Bob, there is no conversation that is objective or neutral, nor is there such thing as a simple 2 way conversation. Often motives are not articulated or even known to the speaker or actor regardless of how sincere someone is. There are of course many grey areas when it comes to observation and conversation more than 3 options. The BBS system is neither objective and it’s Discourse is oriented to a certain bias and loading. This is not about finding perfect systems but rather what systems and their ideology do to humans. If I have splinter in my finger I don’t use a hammer to get it out. BBS is the hammer and I’m not interested in its bashings and brutalism.
Firstly, I’ve found there to be numerous interpretations and definitions of what a BBS system actually is. This in itself is part of the problem. Is it only a highly formalized, documented system, sliced and diced and analyzed by high level management? Or can it be a more informal system, used mostly at a site-level, with minimal to no intervention by off-site management, and used to keep an eye out for trends and to encourage the simple act of keeping an eye out for each other as colleagues?
If it’s allowed become a monster, or a blunt instrument, or as a platform for launching punitive measures, then that’s on management, both on-site, and off-site.
I’ve seen all manner of dysfunction arising within the application of BBS systems, but I’ve also seen them work very well. Like any system, it’s prone to abuse and dysfunction if in the hands of abusive and dysfunctional people.
You make some fair points. Here’s my take on the issue of the (incorrect, in my opinion) implication that the observer must know as much or more about a person’s role in order to make a constructive observation about the task being performed.
My take is that there simply has to be a sincere two-way conversation, with no ulterior motives, using open questions, to which the person performing the task being observed should be receptive.
I’d argue that one does not always have to have experience doing the exact job being observed, because many concepts in safety are generic / common to numerous areas of industry. It certainly helps to know the minutiae of a task, but very often it’s not necessary.
The moment it devolves into a disagreement about the ‘correct way to do the job’ or about competing ‘best practices’, for which both may have a different preference, then the opportunity for constructive dialogue, or any added value, has been lost. Sure, it can go this way if the observer, or the ‘observee’ have some degree of ill-intent, indifference, passive aggression, or simply don’t understand the value of sincere safety conversations.
If I’m stopped by someone whom I know for certain is not qualified to do my job, and they ask me a sincere question about something they feel I have failed to do, I have a number of choices – 1) tell them to get bent because they are not my ‘equal’, 2) thank them for the reminder and correct my behaviour, 3) obfuscate, and baffle them with some technical bullsh*t, hoping they will agree that it is them who are in fact wrong, and not me
If I choose option 1 or 3, and I don’t even practice some degree of introspection in private, and don’t make the effort to do things correctly the next time, no matter who’s watching or not, then it is ME who is the problem, NOT the BBS system
If I choose option 2, which is not always easy for people with specialized roles, and a sense of (excessive) pride, then we both win – they learn, and gain confidence, and I’ve been reminded that I need to buck up.
I do tend to agree with you that BBS system observations, and incident investigation outcomes etc are prone to abuse / mismanagement – I’ve seen the safety guy get it in the neck daily for repeated unsafe observations, or incidents in a certain department/crew, when the supervisors responsible for that/those particular department/s skate along unchallenged and shrug off any concerns raised by the safety guy about what’s going on under those supervisors’ noses, simply because they are not the ones being challenged by management about them and their subordinates’ poor performance
BBS is by no means a perfect system, but I believe that if it’s applied sincerely, and not used as a blunt instrument with which the wrong person gets a beating, then it can add value. It’s definitely not the be-all, end-all system, but it’s one of the tools in our collection.
It’s only a ‘bad system’ when there’s some severe organizational dysfunction at play.
How do you feel about being “observed” whilst doing your job? I can’t even type without numerous errors when someone is standing over my shoulder
Have you heard of the Hawthorne Effect?
I actually believe it is a very unsafe thing to do – a person being observed loses all of their flow, automaticity and heuristics – especially if they are performing a high risk or complicated task. I was forced to watch people with my clipboard many years ago and I could tell they were very uncomfortable and anxious about being set up to fail! Do you ever praise when you see something done really well?
I have had some issues with BBS for a long time, although I was forced by my previous employer to take part in the program. Three of my biggest issues were: 1 We were trained to be able to identify so-called “at risk behaviour”. Due to this, the observer became the expert on someone else’s job (how arrogant?). If the job is then carried out differently to what the observer judges to be the safest way, there was an “at risk behaviour”, without critical analysis of whether the behaviour was in fact “unsafe”, and ignoring all unwanted consequences. Small wonder both observers and observed workers hated the process and only complied because there were negative consequences for non-compliance. 2 It is a well-known fact the a person can only concentrate on one task (or part of a task) at a time. When this removes focus from some (often trivial) other part of the task, it becomes a “slip” or “error in judgement”. This is especially true in incident investigations, where the worker gets blamed for missing one aspect of the task while focusing on the primary objective of the task. 3 There is no allowance in the BBS processes to which I had to adhere in adjusting a task to the unique circumstances or personality of the worker. If someone adjusts a task to make it easier (and yes, even safer), it is considered a “violation”, subject to disciplinary action. In my experience, as focus on BBS and “Zero Harm” increased, allowances and freedom to adjust a task were removed from the worker who had to doggedly adhere to the procedure, even if the procedure is wrong. The outcome of almost all investigations was to “update the procedure”, which meant adding to the procedure, causing procedures to become more and more unwieldy, and less likely (and possible) to be followed, with more ease to blame the next incident on “not following procedures”.