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Is it possible, talking about occupational safety and health, to blur or eliminate the bystander effect?. Indeed, it is possible but not easy.

I´d like to propose an approach (what´s not the only one and besides it´s not generalist) based on facing the problem from two points of view: individual (working with and for the individual) and workgroup (working with different groups and teams along an organisation).

If we continue doing the same, we won´t get great changes. New approaches must get closer to traditional processes and systems that already are part of the organisation´s culture:

  1. Work on individual´s values and the different collective of the organisation in order to strengthen and align its values to their organisation´s mission and vision. The methodology I used and I know is the so-called “Values Based Organisations”.
  2. Consider the approach of behaviour based safety (BBS) as static pills and tools which occasionally will help us to solve certain behaviour deviations.
  3.  As an self dimension inside the first point, working and strengthening relationships based safety (RBS) all along the levels and directions of the organisation.

From my experience and opinion, the way to soften the bystander effect is working on the three perspectives (each with its timing, but counting on the three at the same time). While the first and third perspective are permanent and are part of a culture´s establishment, preservation and adaptation. And foundations of that culture are values, with a key and essential value: confidence.

1.- Values based organisations.

Organizaciones basadas en valoresDealing with the first point would require much more time and space than available in this post. This is an exciting field of work allowing directly to work and strengthen personal self-confidence values and reach agreements among individuals in a same group, boosting them. The methodology that I particularly recommend is the one by Barrett (http://www.valuescentre.com/).

In a nutshell, the essence of this vision is that positive and good values that all we have sometimes diverge of those perceived among our groups and that makes us feel frustrated and, as a consequence, at any given time be carried along by the group (disclaimer). If we are able to remove that divergence (the methodology is named “entropy”), identifying it first, committing ourselves to work individually and collectively, and measuring the progress, we will stop wasting time, will decrease frustrations, will trust more with ones another and, as a consequence, we will establish group´s expectation over essential and specific aspects (such us, for example, take care ones to each other and accept any advise from a workmate when I make an unsafe action).

2. BBS (Behaviour Based Safety)

BBS is a trend or perspective based on that it is possible to change an individual´s behaviour within the framework of some basic rules of reference throughout the observation and positive feedback between watchman and watched.

BBSABC model (Antecedents-Behaviour-Consequences) is used to explain the BBS: if an action is made prior to an accident (antecedent), the behaviour can be corrected (or even avoid if it didn´t started to happen) and the consequence will be that in a near future that behaviour won´t be repeated or raise. Si the feedback is properly made and is clearly positive, BBS supporters think that the behaviour gets corrected over time.

There are specialised literature and lot publications on how to implement a BBS program. I have leave some links about this matter in case that you want to go into depth.

Personally, I trust in this perspective, but only as a systemic complement to other approaches (like pills to solve specific problems). Just as I don´t trust in external motivation, but more likely in external stimulus which may cause my self-motivation, the same I think of BBS: I don´t expect to be told which unsafe behaviour I am making, I don´t expect to be presented a list with safe or unsafe behaviours in a specific matter, but what I want to get are stimulus making me self-aware of that I must change certain behaviour habit.

Therefore, I think that launching a BBS program without having previously worked on values and culture in an organisation is very risky and possibilities to fail and that desired behaviours get corrected conjuncturelly (“now BBS is trendy”) is high. It is true that launching a good BBS program makes possible to develop a strong interdependent culture (all of us take care of everybody) but, at the same time, I thinks it is necessary to highlight that it may be very vulnerable if it was based on a weak organisational culture.

Once a BBS program is finished, it will remain in the memories of all organisation´s members and will and will be extremely difficult to resume such program, even years later.

So, personally, I won´t never suggest launching a BBS program if culture (not only safety culture) and confidence (individual, of the group, of the team, of the organisation) haven´t been developed.

In the other hand, is it possible to finish with the bystander effect from work environment only with BBS?. The “quiet strength” of the group tells me it won´t be possible to be corrected only working in BBS, since in this case the “desired behaviour” is the one “helping to the workmate or the neighbour”, and goes beyond any rule, being by itself a value be must or not embraced from our childhood, and that is reflected in our daily behaviours. Can a BBS program to change such deep value with only a systemic methodology based on observation and positive feedback?.

3. RBS (Relationship-Based Safety)

RBS is a trend fairly new which started to emerge in the ´80 from the so-called Complexity Management Theory (CMT) and advance in social psychology (we took a glance in previous posts).

Basically, in a simplistic view, RBS is based on that organisations, as life itself, are dynamic and change is continuos. For that reason, searching the continuos improvement in safety throughout statical perspectives (such as rules, procedures, etc) hasn´t a real impact on people´s decision making; and, however, personal relationships and interaction have an important influence on decision making and in the actions of this people. And the complicated is that interaction and relationships change.

RBCMBut establishing a culture based on relationships doesn´t mean to leave what we have done till now: processes, systems, procedures, behavioural perspectives, risks assessments, (should be at level 3 in Barret´s Pyramid shown in the fist picture)… It only means (and how difficult is it!) to stay tuned to any relationship, stories and actions happening along the organisation and take them into account in order to support a safety culture based on own values (and so, behaviours) of individuals.

This theory is better understood by assuming that accidents not only come for technical or technical failures or human mistakes, but as a consequence of interaction of multiple factors inside the organisation.

RBS allows, in my opinion, to blur more quickly the bystander effect, and even to promote its vanishing from the organisation, at least regarding safety related issues.

An example was the accident at Deepwater Horizon BP platform and Transocean at Gulf of Mexico, one of the greatest natural anthropic disasters in recent times. Seven hours prior to the accident, board members from BP and Transocean landed over the platform. Two of them had a high technical background, knew in detail all the operations carried out in such platforms and, in detail, safety measures and deviation signs all along the activities.

Deepwater Horizon

However, their visit was reduced to to watch order and cleaning issues, check the use of harnesses in lifting works, talk to workers, get informed on the program and leave the platform.

Nothing of this seems relevant, but it is indeed. During the inquiry, one of the executive confirmed that, for sure, they could have been able to realise in that moment on the warning signs inside the well, but he only did the said comments because, firstly, they didn´t want to delay works but, secondly, according to audit system in the company, because interacting and being interested for other technical aspects may be understood as a disdain and mistrust from platform´s middle managers. But what he didn´t said in his answer is another underlying: such audit culture was also useful to avoid the possibility that in those contacts, the higher responsible shows lower solvency than the subordinate (reminds the Peter Principle).

That´s a sign of a culture not completely good (entropy), with clear symptoms of lack of relationship and confidence promotion. And, however, there were BBS programs established!.

RBS increases BBS perspective, since it adds culture and relationships as main factors really affecting on safety in an organisation. A culture must be established (from the top corporate management).

Implementing daily discussions among different levels in the organisation, make a commitment for active listening and to ask actions from those discussions and start a process of open communication to the entire workforces on that same process of “daily discussions”, are some firsts steps to take to implement RBS. However, I leave you some references to go deep into the methodology.

RBS in addition with a project for cultural transformation based on values, are, in my point of view, a strong program in order to improve as human beings and as organisation all levels wide, not only on safety.


  1. Behaviour-Based Safety Guide – Health and Safety Autorithy. 2013. Link:  http://www.hsa.ie/eng/Publications_and_Forms/Publications/Safety_and_Health_Management/behaviour_based_safety_guide.pdf
  2. Behaviour-Based Safety and Occupational Risk management – E. Scott Geller – Behaviour Modification, 2005. Link: http://www-iwse.eng.ohio-state.edu/ISEFaculty/sommerich/ise671/Geller-behaviour-based%20safety%20-review.pdf
  3. (RBS) Stacey, R.D. (2007). Strategic management and organizational dynamics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. Relationship Based Safety: Moving Beyond Culture and Behavior. Rosa Carrillo. ASSE Safety Professional. December 2012.

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