Anker & Marsh

Author Bio ▼

Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is MD of Anker and Marsh. Visiting Professor at Plymouth University he is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture.As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names Tim has worked with diverse organisations such as the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV, the RNLI and the National Theatre in his 25 year plus consultancy career.He has key noted and chaired dozens of conferences around the world including the closing key note at the Campbell Institutes inaugural International Thoughts Leaders event in 2014. He has written several best-selling books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety, Total Safety Culture, the Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety and Organised Wellbeing. Previously he led Manchester Universities ground-breaking research team into behavioural safety methodologies in the 1990s.
May 23, 2016

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Redefining behavioural safety


By Tim Marsh, Chairman at RyderMarshSharman

We know about the roots of behaviourism. It’s about Pavlov and Skinner, bells, Russian psychologists and salivating dogs. It’s about pigeons in cages pecking buttons for food. It’s about ‘operant’ and ‘classic’ conditioning. It almost inevitably sounds a bit Orwellian to say to someone: “I want to talk to you about your behaviour”, almost never a good start to a conversation for the person on the receiving end. It sounds ominous and can instinctively trigger the rebel in us and put people on the back foot.

I want to propose that we bury the term ‘behavioural safety’ forever! Not in terms of the methodologies and principles of course but with reference to the terminology itself.

It’s worth recalling that the primary aim of a behaviour based safety (BBS) programme is to reduce unsafe behaviour in front line workers. The better a methodology does this in a sustainable way, the better BBS it is.

This is an attempt to reframe the debate as BBS has hit something of a crossroads.

Problem One – The ‘Really Bad Rep’ Many unions are attacking the very notion of BBS as too ‘person-focused’. This is not without good reason as, tone issues aside, there’s many a fire-walking course with ‘leadership’ or ‘team-building excellence’ crossed out on the side of the box and ‘BBS’ plastered over the top. Inevitably, the learning point is: if you can do this, you can do anything – so off you go and be safe.

These courses can be great fun and personally motivating. They also have face validity, at a glance, and can look like a relatively cheap magic bullet. However, they are most definitely guilty as charged by the unions, focusing entirely on the individual  with behavioural improvements short term, if at all.

“BBS should be a sustainable holistic process not an ‘excellent initiative’ and certainly not a gimmick”

Problem Two – Even Acknowledged Experts Can Be Too Person Focused

A recently published article  by the esteemed US professor Scott Geller gives a thorough overview of BBS. Geller agrees that the union position is sound and suggests that ’person based safety’ sets a better tone than BBS and in doing so takes a more humanistic, collaborative approach to the subject.

His methodologies explicitly seek to win hearts and minds in the long term through intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivators, for example, through the use of good quality coaching not bonuses. It was Geller, for example, who first said: “Stop calling safety a priority it has to be an embedded core value.”

The behavioural implications of seminal works such as Reason’s ‘Cheese Model’ and ‘Just Culture’ , Dekker’s ‘New Way’, Hopkin’s ‘Mindful Safety’ and Conklin’s ‘Pre Accident Investigation’ are, however, not mentioned.

Specifically, Geller says that “… an evolution to ‘People Based Safety’ incorporates factors beyond behavioural science to enhance self-motivated involvement of the wage workers” (emphasis added). My issue is that even the best person-centered approach is, by definition, still person centered.

Defining Cultural Safety

My own model of culture (based on Arjen’s classic model of planned behavior) suggests three core elements on which a holistic approach to behavioural change can be anchored.

  • Systems
  • Leadership
  • Learning


If training, inductions and systems etc. have yet to reach diminishing returns then working on them until they do will have a significant impact on the workforce’s behavior. It’s not very cutting edge or exciting but it should of course be considered a fundamental part of a holistic approach to BBS.


Nearly all writers agree that ‘transformational’ leadership is preferable to ’transactional’   leadership whenever practical. ‘Where practical’ because classic models of leadership show that a directive management style is sometimes required. For example, with an unskilled workforce in a dangerous and /or complex situation. But usually, and very briefly, we want:

  • The articulation of a clear message with integrity (ensuring people know what you want, and they believe you)
  • Using praise rather than criticism (as it’s about 20 times more effective in changing behaviour)
  • Coaching rather than telling (to engender discovered / internalised learning, as Geller stresses)
  • Leading by example (as ‘do as I say not as I do’ stopped working when we were 6)
  • Empowering (because if you’re going to impose an idea on someone it had better be three times better than theirs as they’ll work twice as hard on their own).

Not a controversial list and any BBS approach seeking to utilize methodologies around these principles alone will be a long way upwards from a fire-walking day out.


It’s learning that I would like to focus on as utterly key however. As a species we go forward best when defensiveness in minimised and open minded learning maximised.

What all these pro-active approaches stress is that we go out and systemically find what’s going wrong rather than waiting for issues to find us. We know that often it’s unintentional error caused by poor training and/or poor ergonomics and/or human physiology. We know that a lot of other conscious unsafe acts are triggered by cultural issues like productivity pressure. For example, we say “Safely but by Friday” which is the safety equivalent of the dreaded “You’re a really nice bloke and I really like you but …”. The manager said safely and will say in court that they explicitly said safely, so what’s the problem? .

We also know from ABC analysis that even individual violations are often caused by a person’s hard-wired short termism because the safe way is slow, inconvenient or uncomfortable and they can’t resist the temptation. Often, neither would you, I or the CEO.

Logic dictates that 90% of our BBS efforts should be spent on analysis and facilitation. It’s almost impossible to find a situation where there is nothing that can be learned and where empathy and pro-active analysis isn’t appropriate. This is key because unless we fluke it the efficacy of our response is limited by the quality of our understanding. More than that starting with learning is also often really helpful from a methodological view as many workers can’t be observed.

To give an everyday example where blame a fatalism are the default: A recent in depth analysis of a fatal drunken fall down the stairs of a nightclub was undertaken to ensure it was just ‘one of those things’ not caused, as suspected, by a push from a doorman. Analysis, however, showed that it was neither a push nor a ‘simple drunken fall’ as, actually, the stairs were a death trap. Handles were decorative and impossible to grasp, the stairs steep, worn, hard and dimly lit. They were also of variable depth – promoting ‘air steps’. Naturally, it transpired that serious accidents had been frequent and this wasn’t even the first fatality.

In this case ‘they’re all drunk, this happens all the time, what can you do?’ should have been replaced with a proactive ‘many users will be drunk so it’s vital to make physical changes as far up the safety hierarchy as possible to minimize the risk’. The same principle applies when you hand someone a set of fork lift truck keys as when you hand them their coat and wish them a good night.

It should not be learning as a part of a classic observation and feedback approach but observation (if used) as part of an analysis and learning based approach. We should always seek to pro-actively enhance the environment whenever feasible. All methodologies should flow from this.

If you only do one thing

The most important safety leadership methodology therefore is a mindful ‘walk and talk’ focused primarily on learning and only then transformational leadership and feedback. The one front line BBS specific methodology an organisation should implement is to train a team of shop floor workers (or ‘the experts’) in Just Culture, ABC analysis, Five Whys analysis, the Safety Hierarchy, Reason’s Cheese model, behavioural economics and what an impact matrix looks like then simply ask proactively “What are people tempted to do? Why? What do we need to do about it?” We call these behavioural root cause analysis teams.

One and half days training is all that’s required then a few half days for research and you’ll have a handful of “high impact, low cost” solutions guaranteed. That’s a sustainable step change in behaviour right there and in my experience every single time. Then we must of course take all praise and PR opportunities these successes throw up with a view to expanding into such as a peer-to-peer observation and feedback process. But only if appropriate.


I’ve argued that the core of great BBS is an approach anchored first on an understanding of why unsafe behaviour is occurring mindful that 90% of the time it’s the organisation not the individual. This is key because the more objectively we understand why something is happening then the more likely we are to come up with an appropriate and effective solution. In addition, a genuine learning approach also maximizes workforce empowerment.

To conclude, I’d like to directly address the challenges set by the man who coined the term BBS:-

    • What do we do for sustainability over and above the observation and feedback process? (A learning based BBS approach doesn’t even have observation as the core methodology).
    • How can we develop a brother’s keeper culture (I.E. interdependence) so that peer to peer feedback is supportive and corrective? (By building a strong culture where challenging and being challenged, if required, is stress free. That’s primarily a cultural issue where empathy and mutual respect is key so start with a listening and learning methodology based on that).
  • How does the active involvement of management impact on a BBS process? (They listen, they facilitate and they praise BBS work. Sometimes they coach. Sometimes they need to challenge but they are always mindful of the fact that everything they do and say is central to a strong Safety Culture).

In short, we shouldn’t see BBS methodologies as a stand-alone but a key element of a holistic approach to cultural excellence: ‘Cultural Safety’ perhaps. Process and personal safety are just overlapping subsets. The core front-line BBS element shouldn’t primarily be peers challenging peers about unsafe behaviour it should be peers conversing with peers about the causes of, and solutions to, risk issues.



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8 years ago

Thanks Tim! There is a lot of buzz about BBS programs but most seem to fall short of the holistic approach. Here in Australia we are only starting to work this all out and it has been difficult to find good, experienced professionals that can mentor organisations through this process. I work in a highly beaurocratic, Govt organisation that is fraught with low morale, distrust and poor leadership that does not understand the importance of the ‘person’ element in keeping our workpalce and people safe. LTI’s continue to be the ‘key safety performance measure’, while we battle to get executives… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 years ago
Reply to  LB

Your really very welcome LB. Thanks for the kind comments.

8 years ago

“Problem One – The ‘Really Bad Rep’ Many unions are attacking the very notion of BBS as too ‘person-focused’.” Actually most of us Trades Union Safety Rep’s, including myself in a University setting, see BBS as ‘Big Bull Shit’ when (in)Human Resources departments start pushing ‘behavioural safety’ on to Health and Safety professionals who would rather look at H&S in a holistic way. BS being nothing more than an apportioning the blame game, where the worker/victim gets the greatest share of the blame, no matter the mis-management that has allowed the situation to develop in the first place. Lack of… Read more »

8 years ago
Reply to  Niel

Hi Niel

I agree and would hope the article makes that really clear. It’s hardly ever about the person it’s about the environment.


Dave Hazell
Dave Hazell
8 years ago
Reply to  Niel

Niel, has your organisation considered making your BS systems anonymous and using the results as a reflection of the culture that is active in your organisation rather than as a mechanism to focus on beating the individual with a stick? Normal management process should be sufficient to elicit a positive response at an individual level when negative behaviours are identified at the point of intervention rather that hiding behind a BS system that names & shames. At an organizational level it matters less “who has done it / not done it” and more that “it has been done / not… Read more »

8 years ago
Reply to  Dave Hazell

Yes Dave, immediate danger aside an unsafe act is first and foremost a warning that something isn’t right. Why and what we do about it are the key responses. Asking ‘anything uncomfortable and/or difficult about doing this job safely?’ (just about always in my experience) means we can work pro-actively even with peripatetic workers. Objective learning is key.

Bob Wallace
Bob Wallace
8 years ago

BBS systems, when used to understand why the person is breaching known procedures and genuinely applicable safety rules, are and will always be a useful tool in the SMS. Management need to learn from the results and provide the environment, equipment and leadership through having proactive, trained and positive supervisors. However, if you have striven for this and yet still have individuals who knowingly breach these procedures and put themselves and others at risk; in what world is it not their “fault” and why not blame them? I have worked with a unionised workforce and in many situations, the member… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
8 years ago
Reply to  Bob Wallace

Hi Bob. You know what to do and why you need to do it? You have all the tools you need to do it? Your colleagues do it and/or there are no cultural norms to consider? Doing it isn’t any more difficult or uncomfortable than not doing it? Your boss has taken the time to coach you through it? Two observations: 1 You’re unusual 2 Your own your own – good luck (because you’re going to need it in several ways)! My point is that too many organisations get the balance wrong and blame much more naturally than they analyse.… Read more »