Occupational Safety

Behavior-based safety - with constructive feedback for safe behavior

Interview with Prof. Christoph Bördlein

6 min05/04/2023

Behavior-based safety (BBS) is so popular because it is scientifically based and very effective. It is considered one of the most important developments in the Safety Management Trend Report 2021. It complements traditional health and safety practices with proactive approaches and methods. Employees develop a strong awareness of hazards and are encouraged to work safely.

In our interview with Prof. Christoph Bördlein, you can find out why experts and managers should move away from rigid concepts, what employees can contribute and what role digital tools play. He is a trained psychologist and teaches at the Technical University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt. He has been involved with behavior-based safety for more than 20 years, written several books on the subject, and leads the certificate course "Specialist for Behavior-Based Safety (BBS)."

Success with behavioral science

Prof. Bördlein, can you describe behavior-based safety in a few words?

Behavior-based safety is a concept strongly rooted in behavioral science. It is based on defining a certain behavior in order to observe it and change it if necessary. If I ask someone "How safety-conscious are you?" the answer may be very vague. But if I determine that safe behavior can be measured by employees holding onto the handrail when walking down a staircase, for example, then I have an objective measure that I can observe and evaluate. This measurement process is something that is very important, not only for behavior-based safety, but for the entire field of applied behavior analysis.

And if you see in such a metric that only 20% of the employees are exhibiting behavior defined as safe, how would you influence that?

Constructive feedback is key. It doesn't help to just admonish colleagues who don't show this behavior, but I would positively encourage everyone who does. Appropriate signs could also help. And over the next few weeks, we would set goals and milestones that would ultimately ensure a sufficient level of safety. Another aspect of BBS plays an important role here: leading by example. If more colleagues are aware of the "problem" and behave more safely, this will motivate others to do the same.

Encourage safe behavior

It sounds simple, but why do you think it's not enough to say, "Everyone, please hold on to the handrail"?

Because it does not really address the problem. Instructions and even punishments do not motivate. The problem in many organizations is that there is not enough recognition for safe behavior. Safety is often associated with extra effort. But if the manager only asks, "Why did it take so long?", it indicates that the extra effort is not appreciated.

This is where behavior-based safety comes in. It is not about criticizing those who behave unsafely, but about giving constructive feedback and encouraging those who model safety. BBS is the systematic recognition and appreciation of safe behavior and safe work. With this recognition, many people are more willing and motivated to set a good example for their colleagues, which in turn motivates them to be safer themselves. But people need to know what exactly is being asked of them. 

A question of responsibility

How do employees influence these goals and definitions?

That depends on the situation. In the beginning, BBS was a very strict concept, strongly defined by management. If we stay with the stairs example and this is the only problem in the company, it may work well. However, modern work environments are much more complex and people work more independently. Therefore, it makes more sense to create BBS systems that are employee-driven. After all, employees know best what they need to work more safely. This perspective, along with the management perspective, is very important.

You're now addressing executives. To what extent is BBS a leadership issue?

Management approval is just as important as employee involvement from the beginning. The desire for cultural change must come from the top, but it must be supported from the bottom. What I find particularly useful in the area of BBS is the so-called values-based approach. This is where you can really take companies at their word. In their mission statements, they often say that the safety and health of their employees is their most important asset. I then ask: What does that mean in practice? Where can I see that this is really so important to you? And then we have to break it down into specifics.

Observations implemented practically and digitally

Who makes the observations that are evaluated? There’s no researcher like you in the building all the time, and the safety professionals or managers can't take on all the responsibility.

That's right, and they shouldn’t have to. Employee-driven BBS systems in particular rely on employees observing each other. But they have to go through the learning experience first. Normally, they keep their distance when they hear that they are being observed. This is because they have learned over many years that observing behavior often leads to criticism or other unpleasant consequences. With BBS, they should realize that being observed results in positive feedback and encourages them to behave safely. This feedback culture, even among colleagues, needs to be part of the system.

Can digital tools support BBS systems?

Yes, definitely. In particular, automated observations by camera systems or wearables can provide very accurate and objective measurement results. But also the psychological effects have to be considered here as well. BBS only works if employees have confidence in the system. Software and apps are also important tools that make it easier to document and analyze observations. However, it is always important to remember that it is ultimately the interpersonal relationship that drives behavior change. There’s a difference between a machine telling me I did it right compared to a colleague telling me I did it right. In this context, the topics of feedback culture and trust are critical.

Prof. Christoph Bördlein, Interview 2021
Prof. Christoph Bördlein
Expert for behavioral based safety

Prof. Dr. Christoph Bördlein is a trained psychologist and teaches at the Technical University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt (FHWS). He has been working in the field of behavioral psychology and occupational health and safety for more than 20 years. He is the author of several books on behavior-based safety and also teaches a certification course in BBS at the FHWS.