Tuesday, 13 May 2008

By James Frederick and Nancy Lessin

Over the last decade, workplaces throughout the world have experienced massive restructuring that has included downsizing, increased hours of work (e.g., 12 hour shifts, mandatory overtime), intensification of work (increased work load and/or job duties), increased pace of work ("push for production") and a host of changes in technologies, work processes and management techniques. These changes, aimed at making workplaces more competitive and productive, have been associated with significant adverse health and safety impacts – repetitive strain injuries, stress, workplace violence, fatalities and other work-related injuries and illnesses.

Instead of examining how core work processes are affecting health and safety, many employers are directing attention to workers themselves as the problem rather than work restructuring and hazardous job conditions.

Enter "behavior-based safety" – safety programs that, depending on the particular behavioral safety program, claim that 80 to 96 percent of job injuries and illnesses are caused by workers' own unsafe acts. Behavior-based safety programs focus attention on worker carelessness and conscious or unconscious unsafe behaviors, and place the onus for a safe workplace on workers themselves.

The Behavioral Safety Industry

The "unsafe worker" statistics espoused by behavior-based safety consultants and repeated by employers purchasing or developing behavioral safety programs were derived from the work of insurance investigator H.W. Heinrich in the 1930s. Heinrich's research into injury causation consisted of his review of supervisors' accident reports, which critics pointed out naturally blame workers for accidents and injuries. He arrived at the statistic that 88 percent of workplace accidents and worker injuries were caused by workers' unsafe acts, numbers echoed by today's behavioral safety programs.

A variety of consultants and companies market behavioral safety programs to employers throughout the United States and around the world. The leading companies include Dupont (the Dupont STOP program), Behavioral Science Technologies, Aubrey Daniels (SafeR+ program), E. Scott Geller's Safety Performance Solutions (Total Safety Culture program), Topf Organization (SAFOR program) and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company (Liberty's Managing Vital Performance – LMVP program). These programs identify "critical worker behaviors," train "observers" (workers and/or supervisors who observe worker behaviors) and use some form of "critical behavior check-lists" to document when a worker has engaged in a safe behavior or committed an unsafe act.

Promotional materials for the Dupont STOP program say "STOP is people talking with people about safety. In a series of training programs, behavior is modified in favor of safety. The objective of the STOP program is to teach safety auditing skills, so supervisors and employees can observe workers who are performing normal work activities, reinforce safe work practices, and correct unsafe acts and conditions. STOP effectively communicates management's commitment to safety through the entire organization. From the top manager down, all employees are involved in the program. Everyone has a role to play in the safety effort when STOP is on the scene."

The rhetoric is similar from Aubrey Daniels International. "Our systems approach includes safety-related behaviors at all levels, ensuring that people from executives to frontline associates form a partnership of responsibility for creating and maintaining a safe workplace," the company proclaims. "ADI uses Applied Behavior Analysis methods in every part of the safety intervention. This dedication to behavioral principles is reflected in the four basic steps of ADI's SafeR+:

(1) Target the behaviors that actually cause accidents. Some unsafe behaviors are obvious, but many critical risk-taking behaviors are ingrained, automatic and subtle and must be identified.

(2) Complete observations and measurement in less than five minutes per day. A simple, but precise observation/measurement method allows for more data collection which facilitates fast improvement.

(3) Integrate safety feedback into meetings, discussions and regular interactions. Numbers don't change behavior, but sharing data in a positive and constructive performance context gives people the direction and opportunity to improve.

(4)Create a culture that recognizes and rewards safe behaviors. Frequent recognition/reward is the only way to establish and maintain safe behaviors."

Culture" – counterposed to work organization – is a major focus of the behavioral safety crowd. "The key to safety and environmental excellence lies in creating a new culture," explains the Topf Organization. "Culture is defined as the ideas, customs, values, norms, attitudes, commitments, and behaviors of a group of people in a given period."

Sometimes, the programs are less friendly in practice than they sound in promotional brochures. Some behavior-based programs emphasize employers disciplining workers. The training materials from a Dupont-based behavioral safety program at a New England defense manufacturer states, "Discipline for Safety Infractions. Do Not Wait for Injury." Other programs, however, suggest that overt discipline associated with the program could be problematic.

But overt discipline or no, what unifies the behavioral safety programs is their focus on the workers, rather than working conditions.