Behavior Analyses Help People Work Safer
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 (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 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 - 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).
The human toll of unsafe behavior is high: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unintentional injury is the leading cause of death to people ages 44 and under (1998). In 2001, private industry had more than 5.2 million non-fatal accidents and injuries, with more than 5,000 fatal injuries (not including those killed on Sept. 11). Other costs are also high: Miller (1997) estimated that every year U.S. employers pay approximately $200 billion in direct costs associated with injuries that occur both on and off the job. Occupational injuries account for three-quarters of this total. Behavior-based safety programs that target and document behavior change save lives, money and productivity.
Over the years, behavior-based safety programs have motivated drivers to wear safety belts (buckle up!) 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 Hewlett-Packard, ExxonMobile Chemical, Estée Lauder, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, L.L. Bean, and Johnson & Johnson, among others, 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 observer and observee to identify and remove barriers to safe work performance such as uncomfortable or inconvenient or ergonomically problematic layout of equipment.
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.
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, November 10, 2003