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.