Previously we discussed operant learning in safety and how it is the basis of what is commonly known as Behavior Based Safety.  BBS, as it is referred to, is focusing on changing employee’s behavior through positive reinforcement.  If you missed that article, check it out here: Which is Better? Positive or Negative Reinforcement

This article will outline the basics of how you use the knowledge of operant learning and the methods of behavior-based safety to improve the safe behaviors in your workplace and reduce injuries.

Identify the behavior you want

The first step is to understand the behavior you want to change.  You have to know your trending information and what your problem areas are; where are you seeing the most incidents, what SOPs are they not following, or what poor habits are you seeing.

Create a focus behavior.  This is the behavior you want to see your employees following; that if they followed it correctly, there would be fewer incidents.

Define the behavior and make it personal

Have a clear definition of the behavior and an example of the correct way to perform the behavior.  For example: “When lifting always grasp the item with both hands” – very clear and easy to understand.  Now make it personal as to why the employee should practice this behavior.

Without a why, employees will not follow the behavior.  What is in it for them? – not for you and not for company.  And try as much as possible to stay away from “so you won’t get hurt” – employees don’t believe they will get hurt, so this does not compel them to change.  Some examples are:

We want to keep you healthy to play ball with your kid this weekend.

If the box falls, it may hurt you, but at the very least, it will cause a mess you will have to take time to clean up.

It ensures the quality of the product you are getting, you don’t want to damage it – may go against your numbers.

Doing it this way actually makes doing the job easier – two hands are stronger than one.

Also, be sure not to make it an attack on an employee’s personal attributes (like, I know you do it this was because you are short, but you should be….  It is never about things that are out of their control, their personality, or their attitude.  The focus should be on the correct behavior.

Train employees on the behavior

Now that you have a few reasons why the behavior is important; the next step is to make sure everyone is properly trained on the behavior.  Training should include instruction, demonstration, and hands on experience – combining these three training techniques improves retention of the training.

You can combine multiple behaviors into one training.  For example, in a warehouse setting, you can train on pallet building and combine it with proper lifting and PPE.

Reinforcing good behavior

Just because you trained them on how to do it, doesn’t mean they will take action.  You have to observe employees and reinforce the behavior when you see it.  This means having a positive, question-based conversation about the behavior.

Just yelling out “Hey, good job!” is not enough.  To really get them to internalize the behavior and feel the positive emotions around it, you have to do more.  It doesn’t have to be much more.  Effective conversations can be as little at 2 minutes, but it has to have some substance.

Start with acknowledging that you saw them and ask a question – how did it feel? Did it work for you? What do you think?  End with a compliment and a thank you. 

It’s that simple.

Worker Joe, I saw that you grabbed the box with two hands, good job following the training.  I was wondering, how did that work for you? Was it easier?  Hey, I really appreciate you doing that.

Correcting bad behavior

Now let’s say that you go out to watch your staff and they are not following the amazing training you just gave them.  What do you do?

How you act in these situations is crucial.  Blowing your lid, yelling, or telling them they are wrong is negative reinforcement.  Remember, that doesn’t give you long lasting behavior change.

You need to approach this the same exact way as when you see them doing it right.  Meaning, have a positive, question-based conversation about the behavior.  But this one may take a minute or two longer.

Start the same, with acknowledging what you saw and ask them a question – Why? Do you remember? Talk about the key training points.  End with a question – Do you think you can try it next time?

Takes a little bit longer, but still less time then the paperwork of a write up.

Worker Joe, I saw that when you grabbed that box, you used only one hand.  Do you remember the training this morning? What did we talk about? Do you remember why it is important? Hey, I really don’t want to see you get hurt or aggravated over a broken box.  Do you think you can try it the way I trained you next time?


Frequency refers to how often you need to observe and reinforce a behavior.  When you first introduce a new behavior you want employees to follow, the frequency should be high, even daily.  This may seem like much, but remember, each reinforcement should only take 2-3 minutes.

If an employee is not doing the behavior correctly, then you may want to observe them several times a day for a few days, just to make sure they understood the training.

As you see that employees are doing the behavior a high percentage of the time – 85-90%, you can decrease your frequency.  Start spreading it out.  Maybe start at every other day, then every three days, then once a week. 

Avoiding extinction of the behavior

When you know that your staff ‘has got it’ and they are doing the behavior almost all the time (we are human, reaching for perfection is great, but not realistic. So, I shoot for 95% of the time), then you can change your frequency to just preventing extinction.

Extinction is when a person learned a behavior and was performing it correctly, but over time their habits and behaviors changed; they are no longer hitting the high rate we like to see.  Think of this as complacency.

To avoid this, you have to remind the employee of the standard on a regular basis.  The best practice is once every three months.  A nice quarterly reminder of the best and safest way to perform the work practice. 

This is the same positive reinforcement we discussed before, but at a reduced frequency.  It is also the same question-based discussion on the topic and a great opportunity to remind them of WHY that safe work practice is in place.

To keep up with what behaviors you reinforced and when, an easy Excel spreadsheet can be used to track who and what you talked about.  This tracking can be used to make sure no employees or behaviors slip through the cracks.

Now it’s Your Turn

This was a quick review of how to apply behavior-based safety principles.  It is definitely a topic that we can go deeper into.   But for starters, share below if you currently have a BBS practice in place, how long you have been at it, and any plans for improvements in the near future.

I truly love hearing how businesses apply psychology principles in safety.  Everyone does it differently and every workplace operates differently.  One thing I have learned over the years is that collaboration and sharing makes every program better.  So, join the conversation and you may be helping improve not just your business but many others.

Hi, I'm Brye (rhymes with sky)!  I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience.  Specializing in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture, I have trained and coached many safety managers, just like you, on how to effectively manage workplace safety in the real world.   I would love to help you too.

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