Behavior Based Safety

Hardwired Inhibitions: Hidden Forces that Keep Us Silent in the Face of Disaster


Employees’ willingness and ability to stop unsafe operations is one of the most critical parts of any safety management system, and here’s why: Safety managers cannot be everywhere at once.  They cannot write rules for every possible situation.  They cannot engineer the environment to remove every possible risk, and when the big events occur, it is usually because of a complex and unexpected interaction of many different elements in the work environment.  In many cases, employees working at the front line are not only the first line of defense, they are quite possibly the most important line of defense against these emergent hazards. Our 2010 study of safety interventions found that employees intervene in only about 39% of the unsafe operations that they recognize while at work.  In other words, employees’ silence is a critical gap in safety management systems, and it is a gap that needs to be honestly explored and resolved.

An initial effort to resolve this problem - Stop Work Authority - has been beneficial, but it is insufficient.  In fact, 97% of the people who participated in the 2010 study said that their company has given them the authority to stop unsafe operations.  Stop Work Authority’s value is in assuring employees that they will not be formally punished for insubordination or slowing productivity.  While fear of formal retaliation inhibits intervention, there are other, perhaps more significant forces that keep people silent.

Some might assume that the real issue is that employees lack sufficient motivation to speak up.  This belief is unfortunately common among leadership, represented in a common refrain - “We communicated that it is their responsibility to intervene in unsafe operations; but they still don’t do it.  They just don’t take it seriously.”  Contrary to this common belief, we have spoken one-on-one with thousands of frontline employees and nearly all of them, regardless of industry, culture, age or other demographic category, genuinely believe that they have the fundamental, moral responsibility to watch out for and help to protect their coworkers.  Employees’ silence is not simply a matter of poor motivation.

At the heart this issue is the “context effect.”  What employees think about, remember and care about at any given moment is heavily influenced by the specific context in which they find themselves.  People literally see the world differently from one moment to the next as a result of the social, physical, mental and emotional factors that are most salient at the time.  The key question becomes, “What factors in employees’ production contexts play the most significant role in inhibiting intervention?”  While there are many, and they vary from one company to the next, I would like to introduce four common factors in employees’ production contexts:


Think about a time when you were focused on something and realized that you should stop to deal with a different, more significant problem, but decided to stick with the original task anyway?  That is the unit bias.  It is a distortion in the way we view reality.  In the moment, we perceive that completing the task at hand is more important than it really is, and so we end up putting off things that, outside of the moment, we would recognize as far more important.  Now imagine that an employee is focused on a task and sees a coworker doing something unsafe.  “I’ll get to it in a minute,” he thinks to himself.


This is a a well documented phenomenon, whereby we are much less likely to intervene or help others when we are in a group.  In fact, the more people there are, the less likely we are to be the ones who speak up.


When we are around people with more authority than us, we are much less likely to be the ones who take initiative to deal with a safety issue.  We refrain from doing what we believe we should, because we subtly perceive such action to be the responsibility of the “leader.”  It is a deeply-embedded and often non-conscious aversion to insubordination: When a non-routine decision needs to be made, it is to be made by the person with the highest position power.


When we are under pressure to produce something in a limited amount of time, it does more than make us feel rushed.  It literally changes the way we perceive our own surroundings.  Things that might otherwise be perceived as risks that need to be stopped are either not noticed at all or are perceived as insignificant compared to the importance of getting things done. In addition to these four, there are other forces in employees’ production contexts that inhibit them when they should speak up.  If we're are going to get people to speak up more often, we need to move beyond “Stop Work Authority” and get over the assumption that motivating them will be enough.  We need to help employees understand what is inhibiting them in the moment, and then give them the skills to overcome these inhibitors so that they can do what they already believe is right - speak up to keep people safe.

The Human Factor - Missing from Behavior Based Safety


Since the early 1970’s, there has been an interest in the application of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) techniques to the improvement of safety performance in the workplace. The pioneering work of B.F. Skinner on Operant Conditioning in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s led to a focus on changing unsafe behavior using observation and feedback techniques. Thousands of organizations have attempted to use various aspects of ABA to improve safety with various levels of success. This approach (referred to as Behavior Based Safety, or BBS) typically attempts to increase the chances that desired “safe” behavior will occur in the future by first identifying the desired behavior, observing the performance of individuals in the workplace and then applying positive reinforcement (consequences) following the desired behavior. The idea is that as safe behavior is strengthened, unsafe behavior will disappear (“extinguish”).

The Linear View

Traditionally, incidents/accidents have been viewed as a series of cause and effect events that can be understood and ultimately prevented by interrupting the chain of events in some way. With this “Linear” view of accident causation, there is an attempt to identify the root cause of the incident, which is often determined to be some form of “Human Error” due to an unsafe action. The Linear view can be depicted as follows:

Event “A” (Antecedent) → Behavior “B” → Undesired Event → Consequence “C”

Driven by the views of Skinner and others, Behavioral Psychology and BBS have been concerned exclusively with what can be observed. The issue is that, while people do behave overtly, they also have “cognitive” capacity to observe their environment, think about it and make calculated decisions about how to behave in the first place. While Behavioral Psychologists acknowledge that this occurs, they argue that the “causes” of performance can be explained through an analysis of the Antecedents within the environment. However, since they also take a linear view, they tend to limit the “causal” antecedent to a single source known as the “root cause”.

Human Factors

The field of Human Factors Psychology has provided a body of research that has demonstrated that many, if not most, accidents evolve out of complex systems that are not necessarily linear. Some researchers call this a “Systemic” view of incidents. The argument is that incidents occur in complex environments, characterized as involving multiple interacting systems rather than just simple linear events. That is, multiple interacting events (Antecedents) combine to create the “right” context to elicit the behavior that follows.

In such complex environments, individuals are constantly evaluating multiple contextual factors to allow them to make decisions about how to act, rather than simply responding to single Antecedents that happen to be present. In this view, the decision to act in a specific (safe or unsafe) manner is directed by sources of information, some of which are only available to the individual and not obvious to on-lookers or investigators who attempt to determine causation following an incident.

Local Rationality

This is referred to as “Local Rationality” because the decision to act in a certain way makes perfect sense to the individual in the local context given the information that he has in the moment. The local rationality principle says that people do what makes sense given the situation, operational pressures and organizational norms in which they find themselves.

People don’t want to get hurt, so when they do something unsafe, it is usually because they are either not aware that what they are doing is unsafe, they don’t recognize the hazard, or they don’t fully realize the risk associated with what they are doing. In some cases they may be aware of the risk, but because of other contextual factors, they decide to act unsafely anyway. (Have you ever driven over the speed limit because you were late for an appointment?) The key here is developing an understanding of why the individual made or is making the decision to behave in a particular way.

A More Complete Understanding

We believe that the most fruitful way to understand this is to bring together the rich knowledge provided by behavioral research and human factors (including cognitive & social psychological) research to create a more complete understanding of what goes on when people make decisions to take risks and act in unsafe ways. We believe it is time to put the Human Factor into Behavior Based Safety.

Because I Said So! The Importance of “WHY”

Sending a clear message, such as an assignment to an employee requires that we make sure that Six-Points are understood: WHO-WHAT-WHERE-WHEN-HOW & WHY.  Sometimes we send mixed or unclear messages because we leave out one or more of these points.  This can happen because we are pressed for time, we assume understanding or because we just don’t see the importance of that point.  Failure to communicate any of these points could lead to failure, but one point in particular can really impact motivation.   In most organizations, there are those tasks that nobody enjoys doing.  They may be either repetitive or noxious, but they have to get done anyway.  For example, some of our client companies use Behavior Based Safety (BBS) as a component of their comprehensive safety program.  One aspect of many of these BBS programs is the requirement for employees to complete “observation cards” on a regular basis (a repetitive task).  We find that many employees don’t see the importance of this task, so they put it off until the last minute and then “pencil-whip” or “make up” the observations just to satisfy the requirement.  The reason this happens is because the employees don’t really understand the “WHY” behind the observation task.  Supervisors assume that they understand the purpose behind the task so they don’t take the time to communicate this clearly to their employees.  As you might guess, this “false” data can lead management to make safety decisions that may be misguided.  We have found that simply telling employees that their observations are actually used to direct safety decision-making by management can greatly increase the validity of those observations.

People need to understand why they are being asked to do something that they don’t really like to do.   Simply saying “because I said so” doesn’t work with children and it certainly doesn’t work with employees.  Take the time to clearly communicate the reason behind what you are asking them to do and you will increase motivation.