The History of Behaviour Based Safety (BBS)

The History of Behaviour Based Safety (BBS)

17th November 2016

Over the past few weeks we’ve been taking a look at Behavioural Safety, with an breakdown of what it’s all about, the issues for construction industry employers to take into account, an explanation of why workers take the risks they do and how to decide whether a behavioural safety programme would be right for your business.  Today, we’re going to take a look at behavioural safety and its history so that you have all the information you need to make an informed decision when it comes to adopting a Behavioural Safety Programme for your business.

BBS is said to have begun following some research conducted by Herbert William Heinrich (1886 – 1962), an American industrial safety pioneer in the 1930s.  During his time as Assistant Superintendent of the Engineering and Inspection Divisions of the Travelers Insurance Company he undertook some research which led to his definitive book, “Industrial Accident Prevention, A Scientific Approach” which was published in 1931.    One of the findings in the book has become known as Heinrich’s Law and it states that:

“In a workplace, for every accident that causes a major injury, there are 29 accidents that cause minor injuries and 300 accidents that cause no injuries.”

Heinrich’s work is claimed to be the basis for the theory of Behaviour Based Safety, which holds that as many as 95% of accidents in the workplace are caused by unsafe acts or behaviour.  This is the conclusion that Heinrich drew after studying thousands of accident reports which had been completed by supervisors (who usually blamed workers for causing accidents without a detailed investigation into the cause).  Heinrich’s book described 88% of all workplace accidents as being caused by “man-failure” (behavioural failure) and encourages employers and business owners to control hazards as well as pay attention to the behaviour of workers. 

Following the book’s publication, companies began to adopt a more systematic approach to analysing accident data.  While it’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning of BBS as we know it, in the early 1970s several books and articles were published on the subject, including “Behavioral Ecology and Accident Prevention” by Dr. Beth Sulzer-Azaroff, a pioneer in the field.  Her chapter “Behavioral Approaches to Occupational Health and Safety” which is included in the “Handbook of Organizational Behaviour Management” by Frederickson is deemed one of the best explanations of BBS.

In workplaces with worrying rates of unsafe behaviour, a behavioural safety programme (if properly implemented), can produce meaningful improvements in safe performance and lead to a significant reduction in the number of workplace injuries and illnesses.  As a result of this, not only is human suffering reduced, the financial costs associated with accidents and incidents are also reduced.  For any business owner considering implementing a behavioural safety programme in the construction industry, adopting such a programme can offer a significant return on investment (ROI).