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  • Writer's pictureLeverage Safety

Behavioral Safety is Not about Blaming Workers

Updated: Jul 17

Behavioral safety programs are often questioned due to the inherent fact that they are considered to be a way to blame workers. This misconception can undermine the success of such initiatives as they heavily rely on the active participation and motivation of employees. It is crucial to understand why behavioral safety is sometimes misunderstood as a blame game. In this article, we will explore six factors that contribute to this perception and provide a blueprint for preventing behavioral safety from becoming a blaming process.

Negative Connotations: The term "behavior" often carries negative associations. We rarely discuss behaviors in a positive light, which can shape perceptions in safety as well.

  1. Studies on Unsafe Acts: Some behavioral safety approaches reference studies suggesting that the majority of accidents are caused by unsafe acts of workers. However, it is essential to recognize that these studies aimed at prevention, not determining the root cause of accidents. Accidents can be behaviorally prevented without implying that behavior is the primary cause.

  2. The "Plane-Crash Mentality": Many investigations historically focused on mechanical failure or pilot error in plane crashes, leading to a similar approach in workplace accidents. Workers fear that a behavioral safety process may shift blame away from unsafe conditions and onto individuals.

  3. Statistical Process Control (SPC): When accidents are in statistical control, their causes are common to the system, not individual behaviors. Investigating accidents to find special causes implies blaming workers for unusually dangerous behavior.

  4. Perceptions of Spying: Observing employees' work as part of behavioral safety can be seen as surveillance rather than support. The tradition of having "safety cops" who only look for rule violations has contributed to this perception.

  5. Truth in Blaming: In some cases, the implementation of behavioral safety is driven by the assumption that workers are solely to blame for accidents.

To prevent behavioral safety from becoming a blaming process, a performance management approach is crucial. This involves addressing the systemic forces that influence behavior, rather than solely focusing on changing behaviors. Here's a blueprint to prevent blaming and foster a positive approach to behavioral safety:

Before You Begin:

  1. Assess Your Site: Determine if your accident frequency is within statistical control. If so, reducing accidents further will require changes in the systems influencing workers' behaviors.

  2. Gauge Employee Perception: Conduct perception surveys and discussion groups to understand the existing safety practices and cultural tendencies related to blaming. Address these issues before moving forward.

  3. Confidentiality of Observation Data: Ensure that observation data will be kept confidential and will not be used punitively.

  4. Prepare Behavioral Safety Teams: Appoint a management liaison to address concerns and problems raised by the teams, preventing them from being ambushed by suspicious or resistant employees.

During Implementation:

  1. Organization-wide Involvement: Every level of management, responsibility, and department should support or directly implement the behavioral safety effort. Provide thorough training and briefings on the prevention-focused approach to counter-blaming tendencies.

  2. Support and Reinforce Safe Behavior: Enhance programs that recognize and reinforce safe behavior, shifting the focus away from average workers and towards habitual offenders. Identify and remove organizational influences that discourage safe behavior.

  3. Publicize Successes: Share progress and new guidelines with the workforce, highlighting positive changes and reinforcing the prevention-oriented approach.

If blaming becomes a problem during the behavioral safety process, take the following steps to course-correct:

  1. Acknowledge the Issue: Clearly communicate that blaming is reserved for serious offenses and emphasize that it is not a tool for day-to-day safety improvement.

  2. Provide Alternative Tools: Equip supervisors with prevention-focused tools to address safety issues. Offer feedback, reinforcement meetings, and training sessions to support their progress.

  3. Set Goals and Monitor Progress: List the actions required to replace blaming with prevention, celebrate accomplishments, and establish realistic timelines. Continually gather feedback from workers and supervisors to identify obstacles and reinforce positive change.

  4. Involve Employees: Encourage widespread employee involvement in finding solutions, fostering buy-in, and accelerating problem-solving.

Behavioral safety is not about blaming workers; it is about fostering a positive and prevention-focused approach to enhance safety performance. By addressing misconceptions, involving the entire organization, and promoting a supportive culture, organizations can achieve successful behavioral safety outcomes. Avoiding blaming traps and embracing the power of behavioral change can lead to long-term improvements in safety performance and a more engaged workforce.

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