Behavior Analyses Help People Work Safer

Behavior-based safety programs help companies cut accidents and injuries through systematic observation, analysis and intervention.


Psychologists have developed a systematic approach called behavior analysis to increase safe behaviors, reduce risky behaviors and prevent accidental injury at work and on the road. Organizations have adopted this approach, terming it behavior-based safety (BBS). BBS, which grew from early research by B.F. Skinner, PhD (1938, 1953, 1974), includes a variety of processes, programs, strategies and tactics that apply behavioral psychological principles to change specific behaviors (Gilmore, Perdue, & Wu, 2001). Rather than try to get people to change via motivation or attitude, BBS programs successfully "act people into thinking differently" (Geller, 2001). In other words, they change behavior first in order to change attitude.

A behavior-based safety program starts by identifying one or more critical behaviors to change. Trained observers — frequently, industrial/organizational psychologists — study and record these behaviors to obtain baseline measures of their frequency, duration and rate. Next, the experts design and institute a BBS program to change the behavior in a beneficial — i.e., safer — direction. Once again, observers record the frequency, duration or rate of the target behavior, comparing the before and after measures to determine how well the program has worked (DePasquale & Geller, 1999).

Successful applications of BBS programs adhere to the following key principals (Geller, 2005):

1. Focus interventions on specific, observable behaviors.

2. Look for external factors to understand and improve behavior.

3. Use signals to direct behaviors, and use consequences to motivate workers.

4. Focus on positive consequences (not punishment) to motivate behavior.

5. Use a science-based approach to test and improve BBS interventions.

6. Don't let scientific theory limit the possibilities for improving BBS interventions.

7. Design interventions while considering the feelings and attitudes of workers within the organization.


The human toll of unsafe behavior is high. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 3 million nonfatal workplace accidents were reported by private industry employers in 2011, along with nearly 4,700 fatal injuries (2012). Other costs are also high: Leigh (2011) estimated that the national cost of occupational injury and illness among civilians in the U.S. was approximately $250 billion in 2007. Yet safety programs may be making a difference. In 2001, more than 5.2 million nonfatal workplace injuries were reported, suggesting a decrease of more than 2 million annual injuries over just one decade. Behavior-based safety programs may be contributing to that improvement. BBS programs that target and document behavior change save lives, money and productivity.

Practical Application

Over the years, behavior-based safety programs have motivated drivers to wear safety belts and reduce their risky driving practices. Furthermore, these programs have been used to help injury rates at numerous industrial sites drop to all-time lows. On average, one year after implementing BBS, the average recorded injury rate at such sites decreases by 29 percent. After five years, the reduction rate averages at 72 percent; after seven or more years, the average recorded injury rate has dropped by 79 percent.

BBS is used in thousands of companies worldwide. Organizations such as Union Pacific, Hewlett-Packard, ExxonMobil Chemical, Estée Lauder, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, L.L. Bean, and Johnson & Johnson have implemented BBS at their companies.

As an example, Pool California Energy Services implemented a BBS approach that led to a 52 percent drop in the number of injuries to hands, wrists and fingers over a 12-month period. Employees defined critical safety-related behaviors, put them on a checklist, and then used those lists during periodic observations of one another's behavior. They coached one another on safe and risky behaviors. Sometimes, workers were unaware of how they put themselves at risk. Other times, the method gave them the social support they needed to act more safely if they thought risky behavior was more efficient or convenient. The company also noted that feedback allowed both the observer and the observed to identify and remove barriers to safe work performance such as uncomfortable or inconvenient or ergonomically problematic layout of equipment.

BBS programs also improved safety outcomes at an automobile plant in Mexico. Compared to sister plants that did not receive the intervention, the BBS plant saw a 92 percent reduction in "first-time occupational visits," a measurement based on medical cases and the total number of hours worked. The BBS plant also experienced a 96 percent drop in the injury severity rate, a value that included injuries such as serious lacerations, burns, broken bones and amputations. The safety intervention included several successful components, including one-on-one interviews with previously injured workers; the establishment of safety performance objectives for supervisors; a weekly safety review that included systemic data collection; and a process in which managers provided immediate and weekly feedback about workers' safe and unsafe behaviors.

Cited Research

DePasquale, J. P. & Geller, E. S. (1999). Critical success factors for behavior-based safety: A study of 20 industry-wide applications.  Journal of Safety Research, Vol. 30,  pp. 237-249.

Geller, E. S. (2001). Behavior-based safety in industry: Realizing the large-scale potential of psychology to promote human welfare.  Applied & Preventive Psychology, Vol. 10,  pp. 87-105.

Geller, E.S. (2005). Behavior-based safety and occupational risk management. Behavior Modification, Vol. 29, pp. 539-561.

Hermann, J.A., Ibarra, G.V., and Hopkins, B.L. (2010). A safety program that integrated behavior-based safety and traditional safety methods and its effects on injury rates of manufacturing workers. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, Vol. 30, pp. 6-25.

Improved safety culture and labor-management relations attributed to changing at-risk behavior process at Union Pacific (2009). U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration Research Results, RR09-19.

Leigh, J. P. (2011). Economic Burden of Occupational Injury and Illness in the United States. Milbank Quarterly, Vol. 89 (4), pp. 728-772.

Skinner, B. F. (1938).  The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis.  Acton, Mass.: Copley Publishing Group.

Skinner, B. F. (1953).  Science and Human Behavior.  New York: Macmillan.

Skinner, B. F. (1974).  About Behaviorism.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

American Psychological Association, February 2014