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Behavioral Safety is Not about Blaming Workers

Updated: Dec 18, 2023


Behavioral safety programs are often viewed with skepticism, and seen as a tactic to place blame on workers for safety incidents. This misconception undermines the true essence and efficacy of such programs, which rely fundamentally on employee participation and motivation. In this blog, we'll dissect the roots of this misunderstanding and lay out strategies to ensure behavioral safety is implemented as a positive, blame-free process.


Understanding the Misconception:


  • Negative Connotations of 'Behavior': The term 'behavior' itself often carries a negative undertone, seldom used in a positive context. This can unintentionally color the perception of behavioral safety programs.

  • Misinterpretation of Studies on Unsafe Acts: Some behavioral safety methods reference studies indicating most accidents stem from unsafe acts. While these studies focus on prevention, they should not be misinterpreted as pinpointing behavior as the sole cause of accidents.

  • The 'Plane-Crash Mentality': Drawing parallels to aviation accident investigations that historically focused on mechanical failure or pilot error, there's a fear in workplaces that behavioral safety programs will shift blame from systemic issues to individuals.

  • Misuse of Statistical Process Control (SPC): In SPC, accidents in control are often systemic, not due to individual behaviors. Investigating accidents as if they are special cases might inadvertently imply worker blame.

  • Perception of Surveillance: Observational components in behavioral safety can be misconstrued as spying, especially in the backdrop of traditional 'safety cop' roles focusing on rule violations.

  • Instances of Actual Blaming: In some cases, behavioral safety implementations have incorrectly centered on the assumption that workers are the primary cause of accidents.


Blueprint for Positive Behavioral Safety Implementation:


Pre-Implementation:

  • Site Assessment: Evaluate if accident frequency is statistically controlled, indicating that system changes, not individual behaviors, are needed for improvement.

  • Perception Surveys: Conduct surveys to understand current safety practices and culture, especially regarding the tendency to blame. Address these before moving forward.

  • Confidentiality Assurance: Guarantee that observation data is confidential and won't be used for punitive measures.

  • Prepare Teams: Set up a management liaison to address concerns from behavioral safety teams, preventing ambush by skeptical employees.


During Implementation:

  • Inclusive Involvement: Ensure support and direct involvement from every management level and department. Provide training on the prevention-focused approach to counteract blaming tendencies.

  • Reinforce Safe Behavior: Shift focus from average workers to habitual offenders, recognizing and reinforcing safe behavior, and removing systemic discouragements to safety.

  • Success Publicization: Communicate progress and new guidelines company-wide, emphasizing positive changes and the prevention-oriented approach.


Course Correction if Blaming Arises:

  • Acknowledge and Communicate: Emphasize that blaming is reserved for serious offenses only and that daily safety improvement is about prevention.

  • Equip with Tools: Provide supervisors with prevention-focused tools and support through feedback sessions and training.

  • Goal Setting and Monitoring: Set clear actions to replace blaming with prevention, celebrate successes, and establish realistic timelines. Continually solicit feedback to identify challenges and reinforce positive changes.

  • Employee Engagement: Actively involve employees in solution-finding to enhance buy-in and expedite problem-solving.


Behavioral safety isn't about assigning blame but about promoting a positive, prevention-focused approach to improve safety performance. By dispelling misconceptions, involving all organizational levels, and fostering a supportive culture, organizations can realize the true benefits of behavioral safety. Steering clear of blame and harnessing the power of positive behavioral change can lead to lasting improvements in safety performance and a more engaged workforce.

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