Workers Health & Safety Centre

Behave ... or else!

Behave ... or else!

Workers Centre/IAPA forum debunks behaviour-based safety

Lively debate at a recent Workers Health and Safety Centre forum on behaviour-based safety (BBS) left participants asking some very pointed questions.

If a prevention based health and safety program makes good business sense, helps reduce lost time injuries and their associated costs, than why do so many workplaces rely upon management systems that blame the worker rather than control workplace hazards? Good question. The forum was held in conjunction with the Industrial Accident Prevention Association’s annual health and safety trade show and convention.
The topic is both timely and relevant. Dave Killham, WHSC executive director, says the forum was encouraged by member organizations and was further prompted by the results of a survey conducted for the Workers Centre last fall. “We need to raise awareness that these programs may do more harm than good,” says Killham, “especially when injuries go unreported and hazards remain uncontrolled.”
Last fall Vector Research Inc. surveyed a sample of Ontario workers about their working conditions and perspectives on health and safety. Of those who completed the survey, 36 per cent said they believed workplace illnesses and injuries result from worker carelessness. Forty-three per cent of young workers, aged 18 to 34, agreed. 
But other worker responses speak volumes about existing hazards — 41 per cent agreed hazards should be identified and controlled or eliminated.
The debate rages on. What then is the best way to reduce workplace injury, illness and death?

What is behaviour-based safety?

The notion that workers’ behaviour is to blame for injuries and fatalities is not new. The idea originated in the 1930s and 1940s with questionable research by an insurance investigator whose analysis of incident reports, completed by company supervisors, identified worker behaviour as the cause of injury. It was concluded 88 per cent of industrial accidents were caused by ‘unsafe acts.’
Current BBS programs have largely built their reputation and reported success on this and other research that many, including Dr. Roland Wong, question. Through Toronto’s Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers he treats and helps injured workers safely return to work.
Wong participated in the forum’s panel discussion. For him, BBS is based on two false assumptions: 1) most accidents are caused by unsafe acts or worker behaviour; and 2) modifying worker behaviour will reduce injuries and their associated costs. 
To say there is only one cause of an accident is a narrow and dogmatic approach says Wong. As an example he points to the fact that 50 per cent of lost-time injuries accepted by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board are for sprains and strains. Yet Wong argues research does not indicate poor lifting technique is the cause of back injury, but rather multiple factors like the weight, shape and size of the load, the repetitiveness, the pace of work and other environmental factors.
Improvements to workplace factors like these could account for reduced injury rates says Wong. Also he believes BBS programs create a bias in favour of reducing injury rates, a bias further aggravated by incentive programs.
But what’s more, Wong says the average BBS program can be expensive to operate. “There is no evidence that BBS is cost effective. If the same resources were given to a comprehensive program with workplace evaluation, controls and training, would you see injuries decline? Yes, you likely would.”
Others like Osgoode Hall law professor, Eric Tucker, see the resurgence of BBS programs as a recurring pattern in the ongoing struggle between workers and their representatives who focus on hazardous working conditions and many employers who increasingly choose to focus on the unsafe acts of workers.
When worker health and safety activism is weak, says Tucker, there is a retrenchment and a re-emphasis on worker behaviour. Says Tucker, “This is an ongoing conflict. The real threat of BBS programs is they merely teach workers how to behave under hazardous conditions instead of working to eliminate them.”  
Worker representatives, especially in large industrial workplaces have seen many versions of BBS. Cathy Walker, national health and safety director for the Canadian Auto Workers, says these programs falsely assume workers have control over their working conditions. “By this same logic,” she says, “construction workers, miners and loggers are more accident prone than teachers, office and retail workers because statistics show they’re more likely to be injured. We know this is nonsense.” As for incentives she says, “Rewards are not given to the worker who puts the lock on the machine, but rather to the worker who reports no injuries.”
Nancy Hutchison, District 6 health and safety coordinator for the United Steelworkers of America, reports BBS programs are filtering into their workplaces more. When you combine BBS programs with downsizing, 60-hour workweeks, piecework and production bonuses the job of creating safe and healthy workplaces is made more difficult she says.
Her greatest concern is the potential of BBS programs to compromise the role of joint health and safety committees. “Time spent observing worker behaviour means less time for legitimate inspections. The use of worker observers also pits worker against worker. It’s an abdication of employers’ duties,” Hutchison says. “Workers should not be enforcing health and safety, that’s management role and ultimately the role of the Ministry of Labour.” 
After the spirited panel discussion participants shared their experience through two workshops, the first on safety and the myth of the careless worker and the second on principles of control. They also watched a recent Workers Centre video, The Hazards of Behaviour-Based Safety. It has since been recognized by the Canadian Association of Labour Media for excellence in video production.
At Crown, Cork and Seal, a BBS program has been in place for a year. Edmond Blaise, USWA Local 2154, and Paul Fournier, USWA Local 9176, fulltime health and safety representatives at the plant and Workers Centre-qualified instructors, question the program’s effectiveness.
Blaise says the company’s intranet site would be better served by posting the number of days it takes to implement joint committee recommendations than by posting lost-time injury statistics. Although Blaise and Fournier work at different sites both share the same observation — supervisors spend more time overseeing BBS programs than meeting legally mandated responsibilities. After all they point out, the Occupational Health and Safety Act has the force of law, BBS programs do not. 
Editor’s Note:
The Workers Centre has recently produced a Resource Lines hazard bulletin called Behaviour-based safety: the blame game. For copies visit the publications section of our web site or contact a regional office where you can also secure your copy of the Centre’s video “The hazards of behaviour-based safety”.

BBS programs often have common elements:

  • critical behaviour checklists used to target ‘unsafe acts’;
  • worker and management observers trained to monitor co-worker’s actions;
  • positive reinforcements for good behaviour (prizes, rewards, days off);
  • negative reinforcements for bad behaviour (discipline, drug testing).