Historically, organizations have focused on improving safety by addressing the work environment surrounding employees. Providing hazard-free facilities and providing better tools and equipment have, understandably, worked well to improve safety. But many organizations have reached a plateau; continuing to rely solely on these approaches will produce only marginal gains. Despite having a workplace ‘designed’ to reduce hazards, incidents and injuries still occur with alarming regularity. We have come to realize (or be reminded) that 1) people are not perfect and will make mistakes despite their best intentions and working in the best of surroundings, and 2) the work culture often allows or encourages at-risk behaviors to be performed. In the last decades of the 20th century, the behavioral approach to safety performance improvement was developed to focus on reducing hazards by understanding employee behaviors in the context of their work culture.

Behavior-based safety (BBS) refers to a broad category of interventions (e.g., processes, programs, strategies, tactics) in which behavioral psychology principles are applied to change specific behaviors. BBS principles have been used, often in the form of a behavioral observation and feedback process, with considerable success to reduce the occurrence of incidents and injuries, primarily by increasing the frequency of safe behaviors and decreasing the number of at-risk behaviors. The techniques used are analogous to those used in the field of "performance management", where behaviors that increase production and/or improve quality are identified and increased with the application of behavioral interventions.

However, as effective as behavior-based approaches can be, a true step change in safety performance will require more that simply ensuring that individuals perform their own jobs safely. It will also require that individuals work together, going "beyond the call of duty" for the safety of one another. That is, people must Actively Care for the safety of their coworkers by performing behaviors which directly or indirectly influence the safety of others. Actively caring may be demonstrated through a variety of behaviors such as offering to assist a coworker lift a heavy load, performing housekeeping duties beyond personal territories, participating in formal safety improvement activities, or performing informal activities like cautioning a coworker about a potentially risky behavior, or recognizing coworkers for their safe work practices.

Therefore, it is critical that behavioral change interventions be introduced in a way that will have a positive impact on the organization's overall safety culture. In fact, well designed and implemented behavioral safety processes can help move the organization toward the achievement of a Total Safety Culture. A Total Safety Culture is defined as a culture in which individuals: (a) hold safety as a value; (b) feel a sense of responsibility for the safety of their coworkers as well as themselves; and (c) are willing and able to ‘go beyond the call of duty’ for the safety of others. That is, individuals have the skills and tools necessary and are supported by the culture to intervene on behalf of the safety of others.

To understand how to influence safety-related behaviors, and to do so in a way that will positively influence the organization's safety culture, let's first consider why at-risk behaviors occur.

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