Behavior-Based Safety

Taking a Bottom-Up Approach to Safety

Respect and positive feedback are the basis of the behavior-based safety concept.
By: | February 21, 2014 • 4 min read

The best way to cut workers’ comp costs is to eliminate claims. The most effective way to prevent claims is to reduce workplace risks.

Behavior-based safety (BBS), a bottom-up approach that stresses positive reinforcement of safe behavior in the workplace, is one method that has been used with varying degrees of success. An Illinois-based manufacturing company is looking to behavior-based safety to ramp up its safety culture, and it hopes to eliminate risks to employees.

Identifying Champions

BBS is essentially the process of applying the science of behavior analysis to workplace safety issues. Or, as Texas Mutual explains, it is “a process that helps employees identify and choose a safe behavior over an unsafe one.”

BBS requires the participation and engagement of all employees from executives to hourly workers. Unlike other safety programs, BBS relies heavily on buy-in from nonmanagerial workers.


“One important aspect of this program needs to focus on whoever the ‘champions’ are that they be hourly people,” said Julia Sfurm, corporate risk operations manager for Illinois-based Elkay Manufacturing. “It needs to be someone considered one of them, as among their peers, instead of being a manager or a supervisor. That becomes a different role than having one of their own contemporaries give them feedback.”

The champions are a vital part of the BBS process, according to Sfurm, who, has worked with her team and others in assisting with the coordinated rollout of a BBS observational program in the organization.

“The idea is to engage employees in a safe culture,” she said. “You want them to work in an environment where safety is important, to be aware of their surroundings, and try to reduce or eliminate potential risks or [workers’ comp] claims.”

The program involves setting up teams of employees, each with one or two champions who lead the groups and help determine how best to move forward to change unsafe behaviors. An individual or group of employees observe one another performing routine work tasks to see whether specified safe behaviors are being followed.

The safe behaviors are typically listed on a checklist form, consisting of no more than 10 items (see box). The observers then provide feedback to the employee who was observed.

Positive vs. Negative

Positive reinforcement from a fellow worker is vital to the success of BBS. “It should not be used as a tool or punishment because you would lose effectiveness,” Sfurm said. “That’s not the purpose.”

In fact, blaming is among the top reasons some BBS programs are met with resistance from workers, especially unions.

“Believing, teaching, or assuming that most accidents are caused by unsafe behaviors of workers. Starting with this flawed premise creates a shaky foundation and instant animosity for a behavioral approach,” wrote Terry L. Mathis, the founder and CEO of ProAct Safety, a company that provides safety excellence strategies. In an article Unions and Behavior Based Safety: The 7 Deadly Sins, Mathis says “ignoring conditional and organizational issues that can cause both accidents and unsafe behaviors is a formula for failure: failure to produce maximum results and failure to solicit union support.”

BBS works best when workers are treated with respect and feedback provided on their safety habits is given in a non-threatening way, Sfurm explains.

“For every one negative you tell them, you should tell them three or four positives,” Sfurm said. “You don’t want to create an environment where every time they see a [particular] person coming near them they say, ‘oh boy, I am being watched.’ That changes behavior. You want a relaxed and normal working atmosphere.”

For example, someone driving a forklift might be observed to see if he is using a horn when rounding a corner, wearing a seat belt, and driving at a safe speed.


The observer would later “go up to that person and say, ‘I saw you driving a forklift, and you were wearing a seat belt and blowing the horn and that is really good,’ and then that’s where you say, ‘but you’re driving like Mario Andretti,'” Sfurm said. “Or instead you could say, ‘I see you were doing these two activities well, is there anything you think you were not doing well?’ That gives them the opportunity to say, ‘I was going too fast.'”

Changing Behavior

Observers are asked to fill in the checklist forms throughout the day and place them in a box or area that is specifically for the champions, who should review them daily. Doing so can flag problems that need to be addressed.

“You may find out why a certain behavior is going on,” Sfurm said. “For example, is the person observed as being rushed? This is where an assessment of the process can be undertaken to determine if it is an individual issue, are products coming too fast, or is there a problem with a product and something needs to be fixed. If [the champions] see multiple forms for the same activity (everybody is speeding), you could go to the person in charge of the plant or activity and say, ‘based on some behaviors, I believe all drivers need to be retrained.’ In this way, as a champion you are identifying a corrective action to the behavior but no one is getting anyone in trouble. It’s a way to say ‘I see an unsafe behavior and I need to correct that.’ It’s more of a positive reinforcement than a negative reinforcement.”

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]