The power of behavioural-based safety strategies

In the world of health and safety, there’s been a notable buzz lately surrounding behavioural-based safety (BBS). Whilst it’s not a novel concept, it builds on the legal duties to safeguard yourself and others and to follow the rules.

The simple idea is that to avoid accidents, you need to change your behaviour.

Imagine this scenario: A safety guard is missing from a machine in a workplace and a person operating the machine gets hurt.

Research tells us most accidents are the result of worker errors and poor behaviour, so what happened in this scenario?

Well, someone must have taken the guard off the machine and not replaced it and the injured person, despite seeing the guard missing, still decided to work with the machine.

Errors or poor behaviour, such as people neglecting safety procedures, can pave the way for accidents. The key is to change these behaviours to prevent mishaps. BBS relies on fostering a culture where colleagues are fully engaged in looking after each other. Simply put, you’re more likely to help others if you care for them.

Typically, the BBS approach involves making workplace observations. These observations are guided by a checklist that gives an overview of how tasks are being completed. Trained colleagues or leadership usually carry out these observations to see if people are working in accordance with their safety training.

The idea is to identify and encourage positive actions, whilst addressing areas for improvement without assigning blame. The intent is to build a positive environment where mutual learning creates a safer and, ideally, more efficient workplace.

It all sounds wonderful, and I’m a fan of BBS as part of the H&S armoury, but (and it’s a big but), it doesn’t happen just by sending people on a training course.

Firstly, it relies on a fully engaged workforce – individuals not only embrace the initiative but who are also allowed the time to conduct and analyse the workplace observations.

You need to have a plan if you want to reach the stage where your people encourage their peers to work safely. This plan must include allocating time for conducting observations, analysing the findings, and summarising the results into constructive feedback.

It’s also important to make sure those being observed know that the dreaded checklist isn’t used to blame them – there needs to be feedback for improvement, or what’s the point? However, workplace observations must not become another metric used just to reach a target, rather than trying to do anything useful with them.

Generic checklists are a useful starting point, but they’ll likely be too broad for any specific actions so a customised checklist will be far more effective. For instance, in construction, a checklist might focus on the consistent use of eye protection with power tools.

Once you’ve built your checklist, training everyone to conduct observations will foster a sense of collective responsibility, especially if senior leadership are actively participating. This inclusive approach not only enhances safety but can also boost worker retention. Consider backing up your training efforts with on-the-job mentoring, sharing what your business regards as good practice.

Keep in mind that companies get prosecuted for poor safe systems of work, not poor behavioural safety initiatives. Train your leadership teams in health and safety management so they fully understand how it all fits together.

Ultimately, BBS isn’t a quick fix. It’s not easy to implement and tends to work better in more stable work environments, but its potential to prevent delays and accidents and, therefore, profitability makes it a worthwhile endeavour.

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