The Birthplace of Behavioural Based Safety?



We often think of Health & Safety initiatives as being a relatively modern phenomenon and not quite, perhaps, how things were done in “the good old days”.  And yet, during the 19th century, DuPont were pioneering workplace safety through both formal rules and personal stewardship.  By 1811, written safety rules were already in circulation across their entire business.
Perhaps, the starting point for Behavioural Based Safety (BBS) can be traced back to a leadership decision that they had made in 1818.  It was following a disastrous plant explosion in that same year that the members of the du Pont family (all of whom were away during the incident), agreed that in future, one partner should always remain in the yards and that the lower-level managers should reside, as they did, on plant grounds.  The thinking being, that by their very presence and the interactions they might have with their workers, they could somehow help to reduce or eliminate at-risk behaviours and unsafe acts.
It was an interesting and new approach to personal leadership of a safety agenda, a recognition of their sphere of influence as leaders and was no doubt driven by their desire to demonstrate just how seriously they took their role in building towards “zero harm”.
This genuinely caring, “go look see” approach to safety culture recognised that there is no substitute for managers, supervisors and the very top leadership actively driving the safety agenda in the business.  Importantly, it signalled an end to a reliance on systems or safety “professionals” alone to manage safety.
Accident causation studies by the likes of Heinrich and Kletz (and indeed DuPont themselves) have now brought significant empirical evidence to this behavioural approach, highlighting as they do, the fact that up to 96% of all accidents and incidents are caused by human error, with only 4% being due to unsafe work conditions.  The opportunity for leadership to intervene, to reset the focus of attention on safety by showing what is working well and where weaknesses might lie, is one that has significant upside potential.
I’m reminded of that as we roll-out a new Behavioural Safety Module for one of our larger clients.  It’s built on the Du Pont principles of Felt Leadership, principles that are very much anchored in the idea of positive behavioural reinforcement.  It throws the focus on worker behaviour and human factors rather than limiting itself to the engineering controls and safeguards that are traditionally presented as safety solutions. The objective is to change behaviour and foster a positive, open safety culture. This in turn leads not only to reduced injuries and illness but also to improved morale, quality, performance and productivity.
A critical part to the programme is that it doesn’t try to catch people doing something wrong or “policing” in the field.  It’s about prompting observations and conversations, commenting on safe behaviour and consequences of unsafe acts and discussing safer ways to do the job.  It’s the psychology and power of positive behaviour reinforcement as a way of effecting behavioural change – and it is incredibly powerful.
BBS Automation Software can help sharpen and sort the observations and conversations that need to happen as part of such a programme.  It can help to frame the conversations for your leadership and encourage them to adopt an “ask more than tell” and “praise more than criticise” style of approach – a critical component of Behavioural Based Safety.  

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