Dispelling the Myth that BBS and HOP Are Incompatible

Finding Commonalities and Using a Comprehensive Approach to Improving Safety Performance.

Wednesday, October 10, 2022 • 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon • Location: Reno Ballroom

Steve Roberts Ph.D.
Founder and Senior Partner
Safety Performance Solutions

There have been a number of critical articles and comments recently by proponents of Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) against Behavior-Based Safety (BBS).  

HOP is based on traditional Human Factors Engineering. The principles of HOP include the assumption that human error will occur, situations where this is more likely can be predicted, and errors can be prevented by identifying/improving system weaknesses. This includes an understanding of hazard recognition traps, latent conditions where errors may occur, layers of defenses, normalization of deviance, and other human performance principles including:

  • Workers trigger latent conditions that exist is systems, processes, procedures, and expectations that lie dormant until the all the wrong events align in the correct direction.
  • To explain failure, don’t try to find where people went wrong. Rather, find how people’s assessments and actions made sense to them at the time given the circumstances that surrounded them.
  • Error-likely situations are predictable, manageable, and preventable.                  

Many proponents of HOP have claimed BBS blames workers for injuries and illnesses, drives reporting underground, and contributes to a climate allowing the potential for fatalities and other risks to build up in a way that are unrecognized by the organization. Further, some HOP proponents suggest HOP is the archenemy of BBS and that BBS consultants likely view HOP as a nemesis. However, nothing could be further from the truth. HOP and BBS are, in fact, well aligned philosophically.

The belief that BBS is incompatible with HOP may be the result of common, long-held misconceptions about BBS. Although BBS begins by identifying critical safe and at-risk behaviors (either purposeful risk taking or human error), it doesn’t then move on to blame the worker, abdicate leader responsibility, or ignore the influence of the system, as is sometimes suggested.

The primary components of BBS that its detractors most frequently miss or misunderstand are that it includes the identification of behavioral trends, the determination of which behaviors are likely to result in the most significant injury, a comprehensive analysis of the identified critical behaviors, as well as the development of interventions, including the modification of physical and system factors influencing behavior. Although BBS does use peer coaching as a strategy to change behavior, it then moves on to also help users analyze “why” risky behaviors occur. It drives the user to identify the system level factors influencing behavior so that those factors can be modified – the same philosophy behind HOP. As part of any good BBS process, a comprehensive analysis of critical behaviors would include leadership, physical environment/conditions, safety management systems, and person factors. While HOP focuses largely on the system level influences of human error, BBS (when done right) focuses on the system level influences of both human error and purposeful risk taking.

Further, because BBS aids in understanding why people do what they do, HOP practitioners could benefit from the understanding BBS provides, as organizational systems not only include equipment, machines, and processes, but the system also includes people and their behaviors. Therefore, to best understand the system you must also fully understand the behaviors within the system. At risk behavior and errors occur because of flaws in the mechanical and management systems and also occur because of naturally occurring antecedents and consequences within the environment as well as internal person factors. Understanding the full range of factors contributing to both human error as well as intentional at-risk behavior enables the most comprehensive approach to improving safety.

This presentation will focus on understanding the criticisms of BBS. But instead of seeing HOP as incompatible or threatening, this presentation will also show how BBS done correctly embraces the principles and methods of HOP to aid in the comprehensive analysis of behavior as well and the development of interventions, including the re-design of organizational systems to best protect people from harm in the future.

Steve Roberts is co-founder and senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions, Inc. He earned an M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from West Chester University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Applied/Experimental Psychology with a focus in Organizational Behavior Management from Virginia Tech. His specific areas of expertise include the design, implementation, and evaluation of behavior and people-based safety processes, the assessment of organizational culture to guide safety interventions, increasing employee involvement in safety activities, organizational management systems design, organizational leadership development, and understanding and reducing human error in the workplace.

Before co-founding Safety Performance Solutions in 1995, Dr. Roberts was a research associate with Management Systems Laboratories (MSL) and the Center for Organizational Performance Improvement of the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department of Virginia Tech and safety consultant with Make-A-Difference, Inc. He has taught Research Methods at Virginia Tech, and for five years served as a Project Manager at the Center for Applied Behavior Systems (CABS) of the Psychology Department at Virginia Tech, where he participated in and helped direct graduate and undergraduate research projects which combine the technology of applied behavior analysis with theories from industrial, experimental, and personality psychology to solve real-world problems and improve people's quality of life.

Steve has published articles in a number of peer reviewed academic journals including American Journal of Health Promotion, Applied and Preventive Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and Journal of Safety Research, as well as Safety + Health, Security Management, and People, Land and Water Magazines. Steve authored the book chapter Actively Caring for Occupational Safety: Preventing Injuries with People Based Safety, in Dr. E. Scott Geller’s 2013 book Actively Caring for People: Cultivating a Culture of Compassion. Steve is also lead author for the book chapter Principles of Behavior-Based Safety in the Handbook of Safety Principles, edited by Niklas Möller of Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, published in 2018 by John Wiley & Sons. 

Steve was named among the “50 Top Safety Leaders” by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News (ISHN) in 2017, is a regular speaker at both public and corporate sponsored events, and consults with clients across all industry types. Some of Steve’s consulting clients include ExxonMobil, Newmont Mining, Alpha Natural Resources, Owens Corning, Specialty Granules, JSR Micro, Boart Longyear, Pratt & Whitney, Marathon petroleum, and the U.S. Navy. Steve has taught the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Seminarfest course People-Based Safety each of the last 13 years, most recently in January 2018.