Toolbox Talks: Human performance and behavior-based safety: What’s in a name?


[This article is part two in a series. Read the first installment here.]

If you hate extra steps, here’s a quick recap: Both Human Performance and Behavior-Based Safety, as originally intended, should look at the behavior of the workers and the influence of the organization. Why did the worker do that and how did the system allow it?

The second consideration is what gets lost. Many safety programs will call themselves a “behavior” program because they focus on the worker’s behaviors while ignoring the system influence. Bottom line: If your safety program doesn’t address the organizational breakdowns that influence worker behaviors, then it’s not BBS or Human Performance.

This begs the question, “Why are so many safety programs misidentified as Human Performance or Behavior-Based Safety?” Depending on who you ask, you might get vastly different answers.

To a Human Performance or BBS purist, the idea of a program that doesn’t address organizational factors is offensive. To put all of the onus on the worker for reducing errors is a “blame the worker” approach and is destined to fail. They see these upstart “behavior” programs as unfair to workers and trying to trade on the decades of Human Performance and BBS success to sell a watered-down approach.

I think the answer is a little less insidious and probably just legitimate confusion. So here is concept number two: Don’t get hung up on the titles Human Performance or Behavior-Based Safety. They are not good descriptors.

Human Performance has been around since the 1970s in aviation and the nuclear power industry. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO), a regulatory body for the industry, has a decades-old formula for Human Performance: Reducing errors and managing defenses leads to zero significant events. Reducing errors (the worker behaviors) and managing defenses (the system influences) are fundamental to Human Performance.

It should be a two-pronged approach but the term “human performance” sounds like it just focuses on the worker. I’ve heard some interesting reactions to the phrase “human performance.” “I’m the human. What’s wrong with my performance?” or “Human Performance? Is that like working out or stretching and stuff?”

“Human Performance” just sounds like a bottom-up focus on the worker’s behavior  process. Nothing in the title even hints at system or organizational factors. Similarly, “behavior-based safety” sounds singularly focused. We don’t think of “behaviors” as an organizational issue, so it devolves into a focus on the worker.

Here’s the confusing cycle: We need to fix the system and not just focus on blaming the worker. Let’s give our new process a name that looks like it just focuses on the worker (Human Performance and BBS).

Again, I think this has created some honest confusion. If I don’t think that fixing the organization is an integral part of the solution, then why can’t I call my safety program BBS or Human Performance? We look at the behaviors of humans too—almost exclusively!

It’s enough of a problem that many Human Performance processes are starting to call themselves “Human and Organization Performance” or HOP. They are trying to reclaim the idea that the organization has a role in preventing error by putting “organization” right in the name. This is a fairly recent shift and good step, but I’ve been asked: “What is the difference between Human Performance and HOP?” Answer: nothing. It’s just a new title trying to clear up some vagueness.

To recap: Don’t let the organization off the hook because the process title sounds like its worker focused; it should be a two-pronged approach. There are some confused programs out there that don’t see this distinction and call themselves BBS or Human Performance,  which muddies the water.

Human Performance and BBS share the same two-pronged approach and the same problem of a poorly descriptive title, which opens the door for confused third-parties. Next time we’ll look at how the two start to differentiate.

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.