Does your Safety Program have enough Rebar?

Ask yourself:  What in our safety process can we build upon, that we must reinforce?

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My Mom and Dad took a mission trip to Thailand after the tsunami of 2004 that took 230,000 lives in 14 countries and affected so many others.  My mom was a schoolteacher and my father a pastor/professor.  Together they’ve been all over the globe providing spiritual counseling to families, congregations, and communities.  In this case they were going to work with the grief and rebuilding that was associated with this unthinkable event.

When they came back they spoke of many things from this far away land.  One that stuck with me was a picture they took in a village they visited.  It was of the small houses built of concrete block by the poorer population.  They were very modest dwellings but seemed solid enough to shelter the families that lived inside.  Outside of the houses were children playing.

What caught my attention were the tops of the houses that had metal rebar sticking out toward the sky.  As someone who studies safety my immediate concern was for the children and the hazard the rebar could pose if they played on the flat roofs of these houses.  I pointed this out to my Dad and he said that these people dreamed of a better life with more prosperity.  They built their houses with the rebar sticking out so, in the future when life is better, they can build onto their existing house.

This is a practice all over the world.  Here are pictures from Guadalajara.

If you’ve ever worked construction or been around construction, you are familiar with rebar.  It is often shaped, connected, and installed before cement is poured in building foundations and, in the case of larger structures like skyscrapers, throughout the whole structure.

I was in Dubai recently and got to go up the Burj Khalifa Tower.  Built in 2004-2009, over 330,000 metric tons of concrete were reinforced by 39,000 tons of steel rebar.  “Laid end to end this would extend over a quarter of the way around the world.”  The Burj Khalifa tower is currently the tallest building in the world at 2,716 feet and over 160 stories, over twice as tall as the Empire State Building. 

The reason why rebar is placed in buildings this way is to reinforce the structure.  With this added reinforcement, the foundations and structure is made stronger and can be built on to. 

There is a building project in Las Vegas called the CityCenter costing $8.5 billion. Its signature structure called the Harmon Tower has been sitting unfinished since 2008.  The Harmon Tower was planned to be 49 stories but construction was halted when it got to the 28th floor.  County building inspectors found that the rebar installed by a subcontractor had been installed in the wrong places and, in other places the rebar was deficient.  Specifically, the link beams were lacking reinforcing torch cuts and the cap ties were misaligned and missing.  The building could not be built up further and MGM Mirage, who owns the project, is debating whether to complete it as a smaller structure with significant rework or to just tear it down. 

What needs to be Reinforced in your Safety Process?

Consider your safety process.  Certainly your safety management systems such as your procedures, rules, reporting systems, inspections, hazard identification, safety training and the like act as a sort of foundation and structure that we hope will reduce hazards and associated risk.  In my travels to many different companies I’ve seen these systems succeed and I’ve seen them fail, sometimes having to be rebuilt.  Even the best-designed systems can fail.  They needed more rebar.

Rebar is the reinforcement.  Rebar is there so you can build upon and strengthen.  Therefore, to build upon something requires reinforcement.

Ask yourself:  What in our safety process can we build upon, that we must reinforce?

Well, what is the difference between successful safety management systems and those that are less effective or outright fail to protect the worker?  In my experience having seen these many examples, it comes down to one thing: Behavior.

Safety management systems are trying to manage risk resulting from behavior while at the same time necessitating these same people to participate in the systems through their behavior.  Rules and procedures seek to outline the behaviors to take place in the face of hazards.  However, there are far more behaviors needed from the workforce and leadership when safety management systems need reporting, inspections, hazard identification, peer observations and feedback, team membership, and other forms of participation.

Without these behaviors, these safety systems cannot succeed.  In fact, as we see with the Harmon Tower, the reality can be more insidious.  At the beginning of the project they did not find any rebar deficiencies until the construction built to the 5th floor, that’s when the problem started.  Often there may be sufficient compliance to Safety Management System requests for behaviors when they are first stood up.  But after the initial fanfare and attention, compliance behaviors can become, as we saw with the Harmon Tower’s rebar, done with deficient quality, displaced elsewhere, or absent altogether.

When these necessary behaviors are happening on a regular basis, we see proactive processes that identify hazards and risk along with dynamic solutions that reduce injury.  You can build your safety processes as high as the Burj Khalifa Tower.

So, what do you want to reinforce?  What do you need strengthen to build, really build, your safety process?  The answer would be Behavior.  Take a moment now to make a list of the behaviors you need to build, in quantity and quality, among those that work with you.  Consider not only behaviors that are the safe alternative to risk, but also safety process participation behaviors along with the behaviors of your management and leadership.

These are the behaviors that need to be reinforced… built up.

In Behavioral Science, a Reinforcer is anything that increases a behavior’s occurrence or quality.  How convenient is that???  We know a lot about reinforcing behavior.  Here are two introductory level concepts on “how to reinforce”…

How to Reinforce 101

Reinforcing behavior can be really simple and done by anyone. It just requires awareness of certain behaviors occurring and a little effort.  Consider yourself a Construction Mason whose job it is to shape, connect, and install the rebar:

1)   Identify the behaviors you need to build up.  Write them in full sentences starting with an action verb saying what is to be done, when, why, and upon what instructions.

2)   Make sure people know what these behaviors are and make sure they have the capacity and time to do them.

3)   Give them an opportunity to demonstrate the behavior in front of you and give them feedback until they do it fluently.

4)   Watch and wait (like watching cement dry) until you see one of the behaviors occurring.

5)   Go to that person and praise their action.  Say, “you did this, it helped you stay safe while you did that because               “… or “you did this, it helped the team build that because                 .”

6)   Repeat 4 & 5 abundantly, and get others to do the same.

How to Reinforce 201

I was down in Alabama nearly three years ago visiting a very successful behavioral safety process to understand why it was so strong.  The manager of this distribution facility told me a remarkable story – for the sake of this analogy I’ll call him Mason.

Mason benchmarked another facility in his company that led the way in safety excellence.  He didn’t believe that the behavioral safety program could have such impact… he frankly thought they were cooking the numbers.  So he arrived at the site 2 days early unannounced and started talking to employees to get the real dirt. 

He found out these were not a façade of numbers to hide a hallow process.  Instead he found a culture of behaviors that not only supported the safety process but also led to active safety coaching among workers.  However, what Mason took back to his facility was not the mechanics of a safety process.  What he took back was how much everyone reinforced each other’s behaviors constantly.

Back home Mason gathered his supervisors and asked them to praise 5 workers a day for a specific action that helped themselves or others stay safe.  Then he told them that at the end of the week he was going to interview around 20 employees and ask them if a supervisor said anything positive to them about safety.  He would take names.  If the supervisor’s name was mentioned then Mason would praise that supervisor in that week’s meeting.

According to Mason, the supervisors were hesitant at first.  However, they remarked after the first week how easy it was, how pleasant it was.  It didn’t take long for supervisors to just make it part of their routine, Mason stopped the 5-a-days after a month.

But that wasn’t the most miraculous outcome.  Mason kept up the interviews, he found them engaging and uplifting.  He told me that in the second month employees started telling him of other employees that pointed out a safe behavior and said something like “good job”.  The reinforcement had gone beyond the supervisors and now employees were doing it more than management!

Footnote: It didn’t cost a penny.

So get out the rebar and start build a stronger safety process today.

Timothy Ludwig’s website is where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own.  Dr. Ludwig is a senior consultant with Safety Performance Solutions (SPS:, serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC.  If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at

 Reggie Mullinax • I've personally experience the 'how to reinforce 201' mentioned in your article. It is TRUE!

Tim Ludwig • Tell me more Reggie! How did you do it? What were the effects on those who did the reinforcing and the workforce at large? Give me some intel!

Reggie Mullinax • It happened pretty much just like you described it. We implemented in multiple sites and had a process for salaried folks to start giving R+ and track it. We followed up with interviews with production folks. When we heard good stuff about supervisors and department managers we passed it along to the plant manager and copied the division manager. The results were exponential adoption and spilled over to all facets of the workplace.

Some responded right away with R+. More R+ from ee's came after their training, team development, and implementation. It's important to remember that humans, including management, are more analog than digital. Almost all behavior can be plotted on a bell curve. Some will 'get it' right away. Most will come along in time. Some will struggle indefinitely. And all with varying degrees of effectiveness. One error we can make on an installation is to digitize folks; to think that once the training is done everyone should be performing at about the same level. Behavior is analog. Just keep the needle moving in the right direction. Just like landing an airplane, only different! 


This was a great article on giving  positive feedback can reinforce the safe behaviors mentioned in the feedback process during an observation. We at Marathon Petroleum in Detroit ( as are many other BBS processes ) are  also passionate about positive feedback ( reinforcing safe behaviors) and recognizing employees for working safely during the feedback process of an observations. The positive feedback must be specific to the individual(s) critical behaviors inventory marked on the observation sheet during an observation. I have had employees ( Marathon /Contractors) look me in the eyes and tell me “ I wish we can get more of this instead of just focusing on the negatives, or only talk to me when something  went wrong”. People are creatures of habits, when positive feedback is not give frequently enough, it loses its benefit.


Of course there are times when you have to correct, step in, or focus on the at-risk behaviors ,action plan data to be proactive instead of reactive. But overall, positive feedback will get you results faster and reinforce the behavior you want to increase. So why don’t we provide more positive feedback? Well, first of all, many leaders (( without naming or blaming!) tend to be problem solvers. Some lack coaching skills and get out of it by saying “ I don’t have time to coach”. Some people fail to understand the powerful influence that positive feedback can have on attitudes, behavior and most importantly a safety minded culture.


If I had one advice to give to anyone that is involve in a BBS Process or not is “Positive Feedback Works” and it is powerful. Please try it, it takes no time, it’s easy to do and fun! Who knows, maybe it is the one time you can change someone’s behavior for the better.


Regards and keep up the good work,



Radwan Dagher

Behavior Based Safety Facilitator

Circle of Safety-Detroit MI.

MPC - Michigan Refining Division

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