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Incident Prevention Magazine

9 minutes reading time (1769 words)

Lessons Learned, Successful Implementation of Behavioral Safety Coaching

Previously, we discussed the power of behavioral safety coaching (BSC) to prevent injuries and fatalities in the utilities industry. To this end, we introduced 10 key practical guidelines for creating and maintaining successful BSC as gleaned from three decades of empirical research and 20 years of practical experience with our clients. Once again, here are the 10 guidelines for creating and maintaining an effective BSC process:

1. Teach Principles First
2. Activate Empowerment and Ownership
3. Enable Choice
4. Solicit Management Support
5. Make the Process Non-Punitive
6. Use Non-directive Coaching
7. Advance from Announced to Unannounced Observations
8. Realize the Power of BSC Contacts
9. Continuously Evaluate and Refine the Process
10. Make BSC Part of a Larger Effort

We explained the first five guidelines previously. This article addresses the remaining five practical guidelines for implementing a successful BSC process.

Peer-to-peer observation and feedback can feel awkward for both the observer and the observed, especially at the start of a BSC process. Actually, the BSC process can be viewed as confrontational, with one person assigned to audit another person's work practices and then offer advice for correcting any at-risk behavior observed. This perception of BSC coaching hinders interpersonal trust and stifles involvement, ownership and empowerment.
From the start it's critical to emphasize that the observer (unlike a typical athletic coach or a supervisor) is not responsible for corrective action. The observer merely completes a behavioral observation card, and afterwards talks about what he or she saw during the observation. The observation card itself is normally developed by hourly employees (on a steering team) who manage the BSC process.
The two workers might discuss environmental or system factors that encourage at-risk behavior, as well as potential solutions to remove barriers to safe behavior. Ideally, the observer will offer positive words of approval to recognize certain safe behavior. This positive recognition may increase the likelihood the observed will operate safely in the future and improve the organizational safety culture.
With regard to at-risk behavior, the coach is non-directive (Rogers, 1951). In other words, the observer provides specific behavior-based feedback for the observed to consider. Any adjustment in behavior is self-directed (motivated by choice, not fear of punishment) and provoked by the results of a non-intrusive and anticipated application of a BSC process.

Consider the word anticipated in the prior sentence. Taken literally, it means the recipient of a BSC session knows it's coming and can prepare for a good showing. Consequently, the observations are not random and the results are not really representative of a worker's daily routine. The observation data are biased toward the positive. The percent safe score is higher than reality warrants.
The next guideline builds on this point about unrealistic (or invalid) behavioral data. Here we consider a justification for announcing the behavioral observations. If making employees aware of the observations leads to overly positive results, why announce them? One way to answer this question is to consider the alternative.
Imagine workers sneaking around and completing behavioral checklists unbeknownst to those being observed. This approach would be viewed as a "gotcha program," undermining interpersonal trust, involvement and ownership. The lower percent safe scores might be more accurate, but at the expense of the attitudes and perceptions needed to encourage the interpersonal cooperation and learning required to achieve an injury-free workplace.
Even when knowing they are being observed, workers still perform at-risk behaviors. These are the behaviors that benefit most from behavioral feedback because they have likely been practiced for many years. The BSC process holds people accountable to perform their jobs as safely as they know how.
When they learn ways to be safer under these circumstances, workers add new behavioral patterns to their knowledge base. This is maximum behavior-based learning.
While this guideline reflects the need to start BSC with announced observations, a transition to unannounced observations has clear advantages. Specifically, the organizations most successful at BSC coaching progress from announced to unannounced behavioral observations. This shift should only occur when workers realize the process is truly for their own benefit. The guidelines presented here help make this happen.
Some of our clients have developed creative ways to facilitate the transition from announced to unannounced observations. For example, one organization incorporated individual choice (Guideline 3) by distributing hard-hat stickers workers could display to indicate their willingness to be observed at any time, without being asked on the spot. Thus, the workers at this site placed a special sticker on their hard hats if they were willing to be the recipient of an unannounced BSC session. Eventually, every employee at the facility placed the special sticker on his/her hard hat—voluntarily.
At another facility, employees put their name in a raffle jar whenever they were willing to be observed anytime on a particular day. The observers selected their coaching assignments each day by randomly drawing a name from this pool. Eventually, the daily drawing included every worker.
At a paper mill in Longview, WA., about 10 percent of the mill workers volunteer to be mystery observees during intermittent promotion periods. They receive a coupon redeemable for a meal for two at a local restaurant that they give to the next person who coaches them for safety. Then this employee becomes a mystery observee, anticipating an opportunity to reward another coworker for completing a BSC session. The mystery observer program dramatically increased employee involvement in their BSC process.

The objective data obtained from a comprehensive BSC process is valuable. Computer software helps organize and summarize the results from behavioral checklists and pinpoints targets for improvement. Computer programs can compare work groups on specific components of a BSC process and track the results of consecutive days, weeks, or months of behavioral observations. In this way, work teams can benchmark objectively with others. They can assess successive attempts to improve quantity and quality of BSC involvement, as well as percentages of safe behavior.
The data analysis dimension of BSC is critical to its remarkable success. Behavioral data enable objective pinpointing of targets for improvement, as well as continuous evaluation of corrective action intervention (Daniels,1989; Geller, 2001c). This provides objective evidence of accomplishment, thereby justifying recognition and celebration. Thus, the data available from a BSC process are invaluable, but it's important to look beyond the numbers (Geller, 2001b).
It's easy to become over-analytical with the results of BSC observations. However, the benefits of a BSC process extend far beyond the evaluation of BSC checklists. Actually, most records of behavioral observations are biased and unreliable. They are typically obtained under unnatural conditions, as when the observations are an-nounced beforehand. In addition, there is a tendency to overlook at-risk be-havior, particularly when an interpersonal feedback session is expected to follow an observation session.
Bottom line: While the data from BSC sessions provide useful comparative information across sessions within the same work group and between different work teams, the absolute values of these numbers should not be taken too seriously. The communication components of BSC demonstrate the value of peer support, develop interpersonal trust, and help to cultivate the kind of learning-oriented organization that brings out the best in people. The process teaches workers they can be unconsciously incompetent and that they need feedback from others to improve (Geller, 2001a).

We have mentioned evaluation and refinement throughout this presentation. No process targeting human behavior is carved in stone. Behavior is dynamic, continually adjusting to changing demands, expectations and ergonomics. Con-sequently, BSC checklists need to be revised periodically, along with adjustments to the way behavioral observations are conducted and feedback delivered.
With experience, BSC participants become more adept at noticing the subtle features of safe versus at-risk work practices beyond the obvious, such as the use of personal protective equipment. This continual increase in coaching expertise needs to be reflected in revised observation cards. In addition, techniques to support BSC principles and procedures (such as incentives, accountability techniques and group meetings) need to be responsive to changes in the workplace, including behaviors, attitudes, management systems and the environmental context in which work is performed.
Bottom line: It's critical to continually assess the behavioral and attitudinal impact of ongoing BSC procedures and to make refinements accordingly. The data analysis referred to in the prior guideline provides objective information regarding behavior change. An evaluation of people's opinions and attitudes about a BSC process requires interpersonal conversations with both participants and non-participants. These should occur in both group and individual (one-to-one) sessions.
Perception surveys can enable a broad site-wide assessment of employees' feelings about an organization's safety culture in general and about a BSC process in particular (Geller, 1994). However, a perception survey alone provides no specific direction for procedural refinement. Thus, interviews, focus groups and team discussions should follow the survey. Although this approach takes longer than a simple objective survey, especially if a representative sample is desired, the added benefits far outweigh the costs. While gaining specific recommendations for improvement, opportunities are provided for employee involvement, choice and ownership.

Behavioral safety principles can be applied to many other domains of occupational safety, including ergonomics, training, recognition and celebration, incident analysis, human error prevention, hazard identification and corrective action, to name a few (cf. Geller, 1996, 2001d; McSween, 2003). In each of these cases, behavioral principles reflect an overall approach toward dealing with the behavioral dynamics of injury prevention (Geller, 2001c, d, 2003; Geller & Williams, 2001). A BSC process must be viewed as one of the systematic ways to prevent injury in the workplace. Just as the guidelines presented here are relevant to the development, application and evaluation of more safety programs than a BSC process, the philosophy and technology of behavioral safety are applicable to more occupational safety efforts than a BSC process.

This presentation and last issue's article reviewed 10 guidelines for establishing and maintaining an effective interpersonal BSC process for injury prevention. These guidelines were not derived overnight. Rather, they were developed from decades of research and experience studying hundreds of industrial applications. Hence, these guidelines can be considered lessons learned from real-world experience helping organizations initiate and sustain effective BSC processes. Following these 10 guidelines enables the development and maintenance of an effective BSC process to improve safety-related behaviors and prevent injuries and fatalities in the utilities industry. ip

Corresponding Bibliography is available online at under editorial. Dr. Geller and colleagues can be reached at Safety Performance Solutions at

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