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5 principles for upgrading your behavior-based safety programs

Application of data analytic technologies and broadening of exposure focus among key considerations when revising programs to meet today’s safety needs

By Susan Murphy, DEKRA

Advances in neuroscience have led to better understanding about how human brains process information and make safe decisions. Such concepts should be adopted into behavior-based safety programs, such as changing the way observations are done and what information is captured. This can help to create a more complete picture of exposures and the measures needed to fix them. Further, regulator walkthroughs can be conducted to identify physical and behavioral exposures.

Advances in neuroscience have led to better understanding about how human brains process information and make safe decisions. Such concepts should be adopted into behavior-based safety programs, such as changing the way observations are done and what information is captured. This can help to create a more complete picture of exposures and the measures needed to fix them. Further, regulator walkthroughs can be conducted to identify physical and behavioral exposures.

Imagine using a piece of technology from last century to solve a problem in this century. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening for too many organizations in the world of safety. By some accounts, behavior-based safety was introduced into the American workplace as far back as the 1930s. Since then, it has become a mainstay for many US organizations trying to keep their workers safe. The problem is that times have changed, but behavior-based safety hasn’t. It’s still largely a pencil-to-paper system of peer-to-peer observations that leans too heavily on identifying and disciplining bad worker behavior.

It’s time for an upgrade. Robots and artificial intelligence are becoming more widespread in the workforce. New employees are more tech-savvy than at any time in history. Safety – and the issues surrounding it – are far different from when behavior-based safety first came on the scene. This article presents five principles that a modern behavior-based safety program needs to address.

Safety Has Changed

You’re not working in your father’s workplace. Most of our parents did their jobs with very little or no help from computers or mobile phones. Now, those things are indispensable, and they bring an array of new safety issues. Further, technology allows us to live in an instantaneous world. Algorithms and smart devices provide real-time data collection and analytics.

We can use these developments to our advantage in safety. We can better control exposures to fatalities, injuries and damage losses by adopting more accurate data collection and data analysis tools than a pencil and paper. For example, there are apps that allow you to record observations as you see them and then funnel that information instantly to dynamic dashboards. These dashboards immediately create customized lists – like trends and hot spots – of critical exposures based on the data.

There is no longer the need to go through by hand many of the steps of a traditional behavior-based safety program. Today’s data should give you direction of where you should focus your efforts next based on instant analytics, not based on a gut feeling or months of tedious number-crunching.

Good Technology + Good Science

Having a cool Fitbit doesn’t make you a world-class athlete. The same rule applies with safety. Great technology is not enough. You need solid methodology behind it and the latest science supporting it.

There are many existing methods and practices that people say will improve safety, but scant data exists on what methods are most effective or compatible in today’s increasingly digital landscape.

The good news is that research conducted by the Judge School of Business at Cambridge University has reached concrete conclusions on what works with behavior-based safety programs. Among the conclusions of this research are:

• Having fewer observers doing more observations is more effective than the other way around;

• Sending observers where they are most familiar with the work is more effective than sending them to a lot of locations where they are unfamiliar; and

• Organizations that focus on critical safety issues, adapt to changing risks and coach observers do better than those that do fewer of these activities.

Rather than leaning on digital technologies to provide a temporary improvement to safety performance, optimum safety results start with proven methodology that then drives the use of technology. Together, they can make a significant difference in your organization’s outcomes.

The Definition of Exposure is Expanding

To upgrade your safety approach, you must broaden your exposure focus. Anyone who has used a behavior-based safety system knows that these systems are directed largely to what people do. This is critically important, but behaviors are only one indicator of exposure to injury that leaders must understand.

Today, we contend with an increasingly complex set of risks to employees and enterprises. Leaders have to create safety systems that address all the exposures that put people at risk, including those that lead to serious and fatal injuries.

Further, neuroscience has opened a whole new field to safety in recent years: brain-centric hazards. We understand more about how our minds process information and make safe decisions than ever before. We should bring these brain-centric concepts into our behavior-based safety programs.

This means changing the way you do observations and what kind of things you’re trying to capture in them. You want to create a more complete picture of exposures and the measures needed to fix them.

In addition to person-to-person sampling, it would be beneficial to have select groups looking for the most critical exposures with injury potential at your workplace. It would also help to conduct regular walkthroughs to identify physical and behavioral exposures – to ensure your data analysis passes the “eyeball test,” and exposure change is actually happening at your organization.

Optimizes Your Organization’s Resources

In today’s world, leaders need to continually find ways to create greater performance with fewer resources. Many organizations these days don’t have a lot of people to conduct day-to-day safety activities that are separate from their normal workday. The end result is their behavior-based safety programs are forced to use leading indicators in a lagging way. This “more with less” pressure means safety leaders need to more accurately pinpoint where they should be spending their dollars on fixing items.

The good news is that new thinking around safety practice and performance offers companies the opportunity to change who does the work and how. This new approach helps people at all levels lead exposure-reduction efforts and can significantly cut down on the time involved to get that work done.

As an example, a small, rotating and specialized group of “firefighters” is proven more effective at producing quality observations than large groups of observers with long tenure.

Further, technology can help you to develop action plans a lot quicker – sometimes turning what used to take months to accomplish into a matter of weeks. A good data analytics tool, for instance, can give you real-time feedback on what hurts and helps the worker in the field. The result is more exposure reduction sooner.

Increasing Employee Engagement at All Levels

Finally, you need to upgrade the employee engagement experience. Technology and distance can make today’s workplace seem less human than ever before. Leaders need ways to keep their people engaged if they are to ensure safe and reliable operations.

The right technology not only enables great safety performance, but it can also help create a stronger connection between employees and the safety and business mission. The trick is to use technology that allows employees to easily and intuitively find the information they need, report issues and respond to exposures.

You need technology that uses real-time data entry to reduce the time people spend on administrative tasks and optimizes time on data analysis and action. Those dynamic dashboards mentioned earlier can allow people from across the business access to critical exposure information and create a sense of ownership around safety performance.

The Future is Now

There’s a lot to consider upgrading behavior-based safety to today’s safety needs. For some organizations, it may mean a slight evolution to what they’re already doing. For others, it may be equivalent to starting from scratch. Either way, the outcome should be a safety approach that keeps our workers safe in this century and beyond. DC

This article is based on a presentation at the 2018 IADC Health, Safety Environment & Training Conference, 6-7 February, Houston.

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