Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Beware - Where Behavior Based Safety Programs and OSHA Standards Collide

Occasionally a company that has implemented an OSHA compliance program asks me for recommendations to help them “go to the next level” and “exceed OSHA compliance”. Often times I recommend they look into implementing a behavior based safety (BBS) program to compliment what they have in place. Many of you in the safety profession already know what a behavior based safety program is, but for those who do not, here is a very brief, over-simplified explanation;

A company enlists their employees to evaluate their jobs and identify a few “critical behaviors” that workers must execute to prevent injuries. For example, “always wear safety glasses when operating the drill press”, or “forklift operators must always look behind them as they travel in reverse”. Then several employees are trained and appointed as “observers” to occasionally watch and see whether or not affected co-workers are executing each critical behavior. The observers take no corrective action taken when someone is found not following the critical behavior; they are purely acting as observers who capture the data.
Observation data are then compiled and tallied (sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly) to create charts showing the “percentage safe” for each critical behavior, and those charts are then posted in the workplace for all to see. The idea is you create a consensus among workers for what constitutes “safe” behavior, and measure how well the practice is implemented. And as we all know, what gets measured and reported gets done.

Now, here’s the problem.

I was once retained by an attorney as a consultant and OSHA expert witness for the plaintiff in a case where an independent truck driver who was strapping down his load at a manufacturing plant was hit by a forklift traveling in reverse. The injured truck driver said the forklift operator never looked behind him when he put the forklift in reverse and backed into him, and the forklift operator claimed he couldn’t remember if he looked or not. The company claimed that all operators had been properly trained and evaluated, that they met all OSHA requirements for training forklift operators, that their forklift operators always looked behind them while backing up, and that at the worst this must have been an isolated incident of employee misconduct.

While visiting the plant to conduct an inspection of the forklift and the area where the accident occurred, I happened to notice that the company had several charts posted on their bulletin board for their behavior based safety program. And guess what one of the critical behaviors was? That’s right; it was “Forklift operators must look in the direction of travel at all times”, which is a requirement plucked right out of the OSHA standards for forklift operators. The plaintiffs’ attorney got hold of the company’s observation data for this critical behavior, and we found that the plants’ forklift operators as a whole (and they had a bunch) were non-compliant with this rule an average of 36 percent of the time over the past two years!

Now, what do the OSHA regulations say about forklift operators? OSHA standard 1910.178(l)(4)(ii) requires that “refresher training (and evaluation) in relevant topics shall be provided to the operator when the operator has been observed to operate the vehicle in an unsafe manner.” The OSHA standards also require the employer to “certify” (in writing) that each forklift operator has been trained and evaluated as required by the OSHA regulations; this would include all subsequent refresher training and operator evaluations conducted for operators seen operating unsafely, as outlined above.

So basically, the employer in this particular case had data they had collected that showed knowledge of a long-running problem that they did not address as specifically required by the OSHA regulations. As you can imagine, the case settled very quickly.  And I can also report that I know of a couple of other cases where OSHA compliance officers have used data from behavior based safety programs as evidence of employer knowledge of unabated safety violations in the workplace when they were writing up citations for violations of their standards.

Now, think of the many other “critical behaviors” that are commonly used in behavior based safety programs, like the use of safety glasses and other PPE, that have similar refresher training and documentation requirements spelled out in the OSHA standards. Can you see the conflict between the non-confrontational elements of a behavior based safety program, and the “you must provide refresher training” approach of these OSHA standards?

So my message is simple. I am not suggesting that you abandon your behavior based safety program if you have one in place. I have studied behavior based safety programs, have helped implement them, and have seen them be very successful. I’m just suggesting you be very careful when selecting your critical behaviors to monitor so you don’t set yourself up for a problem down the road when OSHA (or an OSHA expert) comes to inspect.

Have you ever had a similar experience with your behavior based safety program conflicting with the OSHA regulations?  Can you thing of other specific OSHA standards (besides forklifts and PPE) that have similar refresher training and documentation requirements that could be used against a company?

If you do, or if you have other related comments about this topic, would you please share them with others by entering them in the comments section below?  And please, pass a link to this blog post along to others in your network who you think may benefit from this information.



  2. Good article. I can see right off the bat what the problem with this company's method of communicating the results of their behavior based training- ie. Posting the results in trhe open for all to see. I ran a similar program on a large commuter rail project in Northern New Jersey some years ago, ind instead of posting results, I held a weekly meeting with all field supervisors where deficiencies were discussed and consensus reached with all the supervisors present as to what corrective actions should be taken. the following week they would report back on their success or lack of it with changing behaviors. this was all part of a safety program known as S.T.A.R.T.- Supervisor Training for Accident Reduction Techniques, and was very effective. When my boss and I took over safety, the project was experiencing serious safety deficiencies, and in about 18 months we achieved over 1 million man-hours sithout a single recordable or lost time incident with a 600+ man workforce.

  3. I think it is always important to remember that OSHA Compliance is the MINIMUM level of safety performance that you can expect. Organizations can follow all the standards and still end up with many injuries. BBS is a process to provide positive reinforcement for safe behaviors. Whether the company had documented that they were only 64% safe with the "looking when you back" behavior or not, that accident still would have happened. Indeed, it is likely that there would have been even more incidents and that without the BBS program they would probably have been 10% safe.

    Pretending to be unaware of a problem is no justification for not making the workplace safer. Further, if OSHA is using a Behavior Based Safety Process to prosecute employers, then they should expect injury rates to remain high or increase. This could be a form of job security for the OSHA inspectors and may be in their best interests to replace/remove BBS Programs whenever they can. If companies are no longer injuring employees, OSHA Inspectors won't be needed any more.

  4. In all my experiences with safety emphasis programs, I've never heard of an observation program that didn't include correction of hazards observed. Without it the observations become merely academic... one major point of doing observations is to find hazards and fix them. OSHA's current qualms against "BBS" are more due to the current cozy relationship the present administration has with trade unions than anything else.

  5. Great article. I am an EHS practicioner as well as an attorney and the tension between auditing and regulatory or private entity legal liability is lost on a lot of organizations. Unless I missed something this seems to be more of a situation in which a BBS program hurts a company from a legal liability standpoint than from an OSHA inspection standpoint. However if an OSHA compliance officer found the observation data they could have issued a number of citations (at least 1 for failure to retrain the operators who were seen operating the forklift in an unsafe manner). I think the broad point to consider is what do you do with your observation data, audit data, etc? Is it reduced to writing? With whom is it shared? Most importantly, what are you doing when you identify violations, unsafe acts or non-conformances (for ISO people). This same potential exists for companies following a management system like ANSI Z10 or OHSAS 18001. You are required to audit and unless the results of the audit are covered by some type of privilege, they are discoverable. Another point to consider is that if OSHA implements an I2P2 standard an even larger number of companies might wind up creating documents (inspections, observations, audits) that can hurt them in an OSHA inspection, or GL lawsuit. Again, interesting stuff and thanks for sharing.

  6. Interesting perspectives being shared here. Seems like a few at least are less interested in preventing injuries and more interested in protecting those poor employers who are struggling so mightily under all the burdensome regulations. Ha! Really? Glad the injured had adequate representation. How hard is it to retrain your drivers (and maybe reprimand a few supervisors who aren't enforcing the rules?) Those supervisors are undoubtedly ignoring other (non-safety) problems and rules enforcement, none of which are good for employer profitability.

  7. Ron Klapperich, CSP, CHSTSat Apr 14, 04:36:00 AM 2012

    CalOSHA outlaws BBS.

    (a) Effective July 1, 1991, every employer shall establish, implement and maintain an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program (Program). The Program shall be in writing and, shall, at a minimum:

    (6) Include methods and/or procedures for correcting unsafe or unhealthy conditions, work practices and work procedures in a timely manner based on the severity of the hazard:

    (A) When observed or discovered; and,

    (B) When an imminent hazard exists which cannot be immediately abated without endangering employee(s) and/or property, remove all exposed personnel from the area except those necessary to correct the existing condition. Employees necessary to correct the hazardous condition shall be provided the necessary safeguards.

  8. Your article was of keen interest to me as we work with companies to collect leading indicators (conditions, behaviors, activites) so that they can perform trend analysis on the data and turn it into actionable information.

    The information in your article was disturbing to say the least. Many would advocate not collecting ANY unsafe observations and point to your conclusions as proof they are right. As a safety professional, this is not acceptable. Driving the unsafe observations underground will only serve to increase incidents. I can hear the incident investigation already: "We've been doing it that way for years."

    Your conclusion in your article said this: "I’m just suggesting you be very careful when selecting your critical behaviors to monitor so you don’t set yourself up for a problem down the road when OSHA (or an OSHA expert) comes to inspect." I respectfully disagree. Critical behaviors are what they are and should be selected based on risk and frequency. Companies shouldn't be careful in selecting them. In your example, the driving behavior of forklift operators was spot on, in my opinion, since they were having issues with the safe behavior. What companies should be careful doing is FIXING the issues they find! The important thing is to fix the conditions and behaviors so that it becomes safe habitually. If companies simply collect the data and don't act on it, nothing will change with the exception of making it clear you are doing nothing about the issue.

    1. Cary

      Thanks for your reply. I was not suggesting they ignore the problem with forklift drivers backing up without looking, just that they address it some other way besides making it one of their critical behaviors to track in their BBS program. There are only a handful of OSHA reg's that require specific follow-up and documentation like is the case with the forklift operator training. Due to the high frequency of unsafe occurances involving their forklift drivers at that particular company, they have an obvious failure in their training and/or enforcement efforts, those should be addressed some other way. BBS is the icing on the cake, not the basic way to manage a rudimentary compliance program. I know they had plenty of other critical behaviors they could have tracked instead that would not subject the company to the citations. Thanks again for the feedback.

  9. Curtis,
    This is a well written article, but I do not agree with your suggestion at all.
    It may be true that a plaintiffs’ attorney will use BBS records to support their case, but they will use any records or on-site observations to support their case. It does not matter if the supporting data is found from a BBS process, compliance inspections, property damage cases, maintenance records, training records or direct observations of risky driving while on a site-visit. This example has little to do with the “non-confrontational elements” of BBS as it does with what corrective actions the organization implemented as a result of this observation intelligence. If the location had many observations of risky driving behavior and did nothing to correct this issue, then they should be held accountable, get fined and/or sued. As a matter of fact, if the location could have provided evidence that they have observed risky driving behavior and implemented corrective actions, they would have demonstrated due diligence and that the incident was indeed caused from an isolated incident or employee misconduct.
    Furthermore, your suggestion that organizations be “very careful” when selecting critical behaviors to avoid possible citations or litigation down the road is terrible advice. You want your safety teams to be looking at the behaviors/conditions that could have the greatest impact on the health and safety of their coworkers. If you leave off the “critical” behaviors (thus the term critical), what would you have left on the checklist? Wouldn’t any behaviors (BBS) or conditions (Inspections) have the potential to be used as evidence for citations and/or litigation?
    The suggestion should be for safety professionals, safety committees and their leadership team to use their observation intelligence to identify risky behaviors, conditions and error-likely situations, correct the issues, and make their workplaces safer and send everyone home to their families.


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