Human performance and behavior-based safety: What’s the difference?


This article is part three in a series. Check out parts one and two. In a nutshell, here are the two big concepts from the first two articles:

  1. If your process doesn’t address fixing the breakdowns in an organization that make it hard for workers to choose the right behaviors then you do not have a true Human Performance or BBS process.
  2. Don’t get hung up on the titles Human Performance or Behavior-Based Safety; they are not good descriptors. The names sound like “people” fixes, letting the organization off the hook.

These first two concepts address a couple of issues shared by Human Performance and BBS. Though the names may not make it clear, both processes look to improve worker behaviors and the systems they work within. So what’s the difference? Broadly, it’s where they put their focus.

Human Performance and BBS have different reputations (criticisms). “BBS focuses too much on the worker while only giving a nod to the organization’s role.” and “Human Performance is always pointing its finger at the organization while constantly giving the worker a ‘no blame’ pass.” Both of these reputations are inaccurate but probably well earned. The reason is twofold: It’s by design and decline.


Human Performance evolved out of heavily regulated industries like commercial nuclear power and aviation. It was recognized early on that there was a need to have shared accountability between the workers and the organization in order to drive improvement. Human Performance was designed with this in mind. (Remember the INPO formula? Reduce Errors AND Manage Defenses?) Human Performance in these industries has largely maintained these dual priorities likely due to the presence of a regulator (NRC or FAA) holding leadership accountable for their part.

Behavior-Based Safety, by design, looks at both the worker and the organization but with a bottom-up view. Start with the worker behavior we want. Observe the worker to see if we are getting this behavior. Determine what influenced the behavior (the individual’s own influence AND the organizational influence). Attempt to shape the culture to get more of the behavior we want. You can see where there is a consideration of the organization’s influence but the focus is skewed more toward the worker.


Human Performance, outside of regulated industries, will often decline and look more and more like BBS. As accidents and errors occur, the leadership will decreasingly point the finger at themselves and ask more and more of the worker—it’s only human nature. “Something went wrong. Leadership is in the position to assign blame and corrective actions. Result: It’s a worker problem and they need to do better.”  This is what leads to the adage that “Failing Human Performance looks a lot like BBS.” The reaction to this sometimes swings the pendulum back too far (see HOP) and gives the impression that “Human Performance is always pointing its finger at the organization and while constantly giving the worker a ‘no blame’ pass.”

BBS starts with more of a worker focus and can decline from there. In the first article, we looked at spotting BBS and Human Performance imposters (concept No. 1 above). There is real value in observing worker behaviors, but over time, the leadership accountability has declined. In the case of BBS imposters, this decline is actually by design to make it an easy sell. “Hey, leader and person who likely signs the checks. You want to improve your workers without taking on any responsibility? We’ll get your workers to collect data on each other and all you have to do is show it back to them so they can self-correct.” This approach is what gives BBS the reputation that “BBS focuses too much on the worker while only giving a nod to organizational role.”

Now we arrive at concept No. 3:  BBS wants the worker to self-correct while Human Performance wants to strike a balance between improved worker behaviors and organizational accountability. There. The gauntlet has been thrown. We’ll defend this concept and wrap this series up next week. Stay tuned.

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.