Behaviour based safety observations (BBSO) are an integral part of behaviour based safety programs, which aim to reduce the number of incidents by recognizing safe behaviour, and eliminating the need for unsafe behaviour. The general idea is that by creating safe work habits through observations, the number of incidents will decrease among workers.

The Construction Owners Association of Alberta (COAA) defines Behaviour Based Safety (BBS) as "a process through which work groups can identify, measure and change their behaviours."

Human behaviour is heavily influenced by what happens around us. By nature, people do what they see. However, it also means that it can be identified and measured by others, and changed according to different external influences.

Performing Behaviour Based Safety Observations

BBSOs should be performed on a regular basis between workers. Workers must be selected and trained to act as observers, however, anyone can be observed.

In order to properly perform a BBSO, the observer must inform the observee that they are being watched. While it is common to assume that observation means that a worker will perform the task perfectly (which would be a good thing), habits and complacency can affect the outcome of the observation.

By acknowledging safe work behaviours in a positive way, workers are encouraged to repeat the behaviour, and others are more likely to follow suit.

While BBSOs are performed among peers, it is important that the right people are selected to carry out the observations. When selecting observers within your company, ensure that candidates:

  • Have experience with the task
  • Be respected by their colleagues
  • Believe in the BBS program
  • Be able to provide positive feedback for safe behaviours
  • Be able to provide coaching and discuss unsafe behaviour

BBOs are intended to determine if workers are able to perform tasks safely and identify any hazards that could potentially cause harm. When performing observations, the observer will fill out a form or checklist that breaks the task down into smaller elements.

Once the observation has been completed, the observer will provide the worker with feedback and either positive reinforcement for safe behaviour, or coaching and guidance regarding unsafe behaviour. Any behaviours that present an immediate danger to the life and health of the worker, or to the environment, must be stopped immediately and a discussion between the observer and the worker regarding the matter should take place.

Keep in mind that the conversation should focus on why the behaviour occurred and how it could be better executed, but should not be used as an opportunity to punish or chastise the worker. Encourage observers to record the reasons that the worker gives as to why they displayed unsafe behaviour. It could stem from a lack of resources that has yet to be addressed (e.g. offering a wider selection of glove sizes if a worker complains of gloves being difficult to work with).

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Creating an effective Behaviour Based Safety program

The most difficult part of implementing a BBS program is to change everyone's way of thinking, from upper management to front line workers. It is human nature to look for flaws or negativity, however, the objective of BBS is to look for and praise positive behaviours.

In an article titled The Contributing Factors of Behavior Based Safety Failures, EHS identifies the most common reasons why BBS programs fail or are ineffective.

  • Forced effort or involvement: If workers aren't passionate about the process, they will not be effective in executing it. It is important to motivate and make them believe in the process as opposed to ramming it down their throats.
  • A "Gotcha" approach: Do not create an environment that suggests "us vs them" by spying on workers to "catch them in the act". Properly announcing the observation and praising good work will yield better results.
  • Information used for discipline: The objective of BBS is to look for and praise positive behaviours. Instead of reprimanding workers for unsafe behaviour, use unsafe observations as teaching moments, as well as an opportunity to look for issues within the task itself.
  • Lack of action plans or visible success: Ensure that the safety team shares the data from the BBSOs and uses it to motivate the rest of the company. Employees can't be excited about a program if they don't see any results or changes being applied to their processes.
  • Unfocused or misfocused efforts: Don't lose sight of the big picture. While you want to conduct regular BBSOs, you also want to conduct effective BBSOs. If your observers are more focused on meeting their quotas than creating a safer workplace, you won't get the results you are striving for.
  • Retention and Internalization is an afterthought: If the entirety of your safety program depends solely on an external party, how will you retain it in times of hardship? Ensure that there are ways that you can retain and sustain your safety program if ever you can't afford your safety consultant or software.
  • Expecting miracles: Humans are a product of their environment and experiences, and these shape every aspect of our lives. Changing mindsets and the frameworks people are used to will not happen overnight, so give your workers and BBS program time and room to grow before seeing a change.
  • Stopping at behaviour: Even though the goal of a BBS program is to stop unsafe behaviour, it is important to acknowledge that these behaviours occurred for a reason. Engage workers in a conversation regarding their behaviour and try to determine how you can best tackle the reasons why it happened in the first place.

No one plans on getting injured on the job and creating a positive safety culture for your workers can help drastically reduce the chances of anyone getting hurt. If your company is interested in following a Behaviour Based Safety program, keep one thing in mind: BBS isn't "us vs them". BBS means everyone working together to keep each other safe. 

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