Behavioural Safety Past, Present & Future

Paul Bizzell, Operations Director at Ryder Marsh Safety Limited, explains the background to Behavioural Safety and briefs on current thinking about Safety Culture…

The actual origin of the term Behaviour Based Safety (BBS) is variously attributed to a number of psychologists. What is clear is that several people were working in the field of understanding the relationship between risk taking behaviours linked to accidents from the 1970’s onwards. Their work built on the publications of Heinrich 1 and Lewin 2 as far back as the 1930’s. There was a flurry of publications in the mid to late 1990’s by several key names in the field in the USA 3-6. Simultaneously the original research on Behavioural Safety, in the UK was undertaken at UMIST in the 1990’s by a team including Professor

Dominic Cooper, Dr Tim Marsh and others. Dr Marsh founded Ryder Marsh Safety Limited in 1997 and the company has become established as a leader in the field in the UK with implementations worldwide.


Initially the most common question encountered was simply “What is it?” A brief explanation that it identifies the motivation for risk taking and suggests changes to the working environment to change behaviours; or that it was about the psychology of industrial safety would usually be a good start.


Whilst a small number of professional practitioners developed a body of good practice and BBS gained popularity the term was often adopted and misapplied by others to any and every attempt to enforce rules without any understanding of the underlying science and psychology. When implemented in the style of “I’ve told you the rules, now BEHAVE!” it just reinforces outmoded management styles and creates or perpetuates a blame culture. Quite rightly the unions in the US and UK condemned poorly implemented BBS initiatives and Unite lead a campaign under the banner “Beware Behavioural Safety”7.


Perhaps as a result of this or maybe just out of a desire to adopt best practice from about 2008 onwards, as organisations had either implemented some form of BBS or at least considered an implementation the more common question became “How do we do BBS well?” There was a great deal of interest in benchmarking and comparing initiatives evident both in dialogue with our customers and papers being presented at relevant conferences. In many ways, of course, this evolution follows a similar pattern to the way Quality Systems and “classic” health and safety management systems emerged and matured in the latter decades of the 20th Century.

A well designed BBS implementation embraces the principles laid out in the core literature in the references. That is, it’s based on scientific principles of data collection, analysis, hypothesis/design of change, implementation of change to environment or procedures, collecting new data and testing that the designed solution actually works (all of which needs to be done with proper engagement and input from the workforce in an environment that is seen as fair and consistent). The guiding principle when implementing a good BBS system is to remember that if you can make the safe way easy for the person doing the work then why would anyone not do it that way? Contrast that with the traditional approach to compliance which identifies a risk and then imposes “control measures” that often impose an additional burden of effort, training, concentration and time.

2014 onwards

In the last couple of years, again possibly in the light of the adverse press generated by poorly designed and heavy handed implementations, the emerging question is very much “What comes after BBS?”

The answer is a more holistic approach covering the all elements of a safety culture rather than just behaviour. This approach, Cultural Safety™, addresses the four main components of a Safety Culture.

They are Beliefs, Behaviours/Rituals, Language and Artefacts/equipment.

Sociologists and Anthropologists would say that any significant difference in any single area indicates a different culture. The advantage of taking a cultural approach is that as well as the behaviours (Rituals) we also look at the things that have the most significant effect on behaviours so we are dealing with root causes and not just symptoms. Once established, a cultural solution will be much more deeply embedded and long lasting whilst many changes to behaviour can be quite temporary and revert once a short-term stimulus ends.

There are established tools to assess the relative strength and development of each element. By undertaking a Safety Culture survey an individual organisation’s relative strengths and weaknesses can be established and a programme developed to bolster the least developed. Rather than simply focussing on worker behaviour this often shows up fundamental weaknesses in areas such as Leadership & management, values, processes, contract terms and other systemic flaws which left un-addressed create massive inefficiencies in an organisation never mind the risks to safety.

Since many of the tools used in the data collection, analysis and change management parts of a Cultural Safety™ implementation are also used in other process improvement methodologies it is often possible to align with initiatives traditionally aimed solely at efficiency, such as Lean and Six Sigma, which leverage’s previous investments. The advantage of approaching process improvement from the Cultural Safety™ angle is that making processes safe and easy at the same time both reduces risk and improves productivity. Current thinking on safety culture is best summed up in the recently published book by Dr Tim Marsh 8.

1 Heinrich, H. W. (1931). Industrial accident prevention: a scientific approach. McGraw-Hill.

2 Lewin K (1936) Principles of Topological Psychology Read Books

3 McSween, T.E. (1995) The Values-Based Safety Process: Improving Your Safety Culture with a Behavioral Approach. Van Nostrand Reinhold. New York.

4 Geller, E.S. (1996) Working Safe: How to Help People Actively Care for Health and Safety

5 Peterson, D. (1996) Analyzing Safety System effectiveness NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold

6 Krause, T.R. (1997) The Behavior-Based Safety Process: Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture.

7 Behavioural%20Safety%20(Unite%20leaflet)11-4843.pdf

8 Marsh, T. (2014) Total Safety Culture: Organisational Risk literacy Ryder Marsh Safety Limited

Paul Bizzell, Operations Director.

Ryder Marsh Safety Limited

Tel: 01235 205647




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