Toolbox Talks: Human performance and behavior-based safety—how to spot imposters


This is a complicated and nuanced debate. Over the next few articles, I will try to boil-down to a few key concepts to start us down the path of differentiating between the two. Hopefully, we can expand our understanding but at the very least we will get something interesting to talk about at parties—if you don’t like getting invited back to parties, that is.

The first thing we need to do to start unwinding all of this is to recognize a confusing problem: Too many people are misapplying the term Behavior-Based Safety, or BBS. Like Human Performance, true BBS is supposed to address ALL the factors that influence worker decisions.

Peers performing an audit of coworkers are supposed to look at the behaviors of the worker AND the organizational influences on their choices. Why did the worker do that and how did the system allow it? So here is concept No. 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 BBS process.

I’m not going to name names here, but many of the big safety programs inaccurately call themselves BBS. The confusion is understandable, since they are focused on the behaviors of the worker, but it’s constrained to only what the worker, themselves, can do to improve their situational awareness and decision-making.

If your “BBS” program is asking workers to trigger on an error state and then self-correct with heightened awareness, then you have half of a true BBS process. If there is nothing that addresses how the organization might have contributed to the error likely state, then you’re not fixing the problem. You’re telling the worker to deal with it better. Not a great strategy and not a BBS system.

These pseudo-BBS programs are popular and you can probably spot them. It’s an easy sell because the people that sign the checks are being told, “This is one of those effective behavior-based safety programs but good news: You don’t have to do anything. Just execute the contract and we’ll train your workers to do all the work and hold all the responsibility for better decisions.” You’re going to fix my “them” problem and I don’t have to lift a finger? Sign me up! 

So Step #1 in our understanding of the difference between Human Performance and BBS is this: Make sure the process you are using or considering is actually a true BBS program.

Now that we have thinned the field a little by eliminating the imposter BBS programs from the discussion, we can focus on comparing and contrasting Human Performance and BBS. 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.