Safety Culture Blog

Does your Safety Culture have Enough Rebar?

Your safety management systems act like the structure of a building aimed at reducing risk. These systems can fail due to lack of participation.  They needed more rebar.  Ask yourself:  What behaviors do you need to build into your safety processes?  What must you reinforce?

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 the hazard this rebar could pose to children if they played on the flat roofs of these houses.  I pointed this out to Dad. He explained 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.  

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 one of the tallest buildings 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 onto.  I’ve been told by engineers that the word “REBAR” is short for “Reinforcing Bar"

What needs REBAR 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 like the foundation and structure of a building aimed at reducing 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.  They needed more rebar.

Rebar is the reinforcement needed for a successful safety process.  With reinforcement you can build upon and strengthen your processes much like rebar strengthens its structures.  

Ask yourself:  What needs to be reinforced in our safety process to strengthen it’s impact?

To answer that question let’s look at the difference between successful safety management systems and those that are less effective or outright fail to protect the worker?  In my experience, it comes down to one thing: Behavior.

Safety management systems are trying to manage risk resulting from behavior of folks in the workforce.  But these systems don’t stand alone.  The paradox is that these safety processes to work, they need these same workers to participate through their behavior.  Certainly, rules and procedures seek to direct the behaviors to take place in the face of hazards, but “rules” never actually pushed that shovel or installed the casing, your workers behavior does that .  Other safety management systems such as close call reporting, inspections, hazard identification, J.S.A.’s, safety meetings, committee membership, and peer observations/feedback all require workers (and supervisors) to participate in some way; participation requires behavior.

Without these behaviors, these safety systems cannot succeed.  What needs to be reinforced in our safety process to strengthen it’s impact?  Behavior.

Be Careful what you Reinforce

There was a building project in Las Vegas called the CityCenter costing $8.5 billion. Its signature structure called the Harmon Tower was 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 was installed by a subcontractor in the wrong places! In other parts of the build the rebar was deficient.   MGM Mirage, who owns the project, debated whether to complete it as a smaller structure with significant rework or to just tear it down.  They tore it down in 2015.  Ironically, one of the owners was “Dubai World” (recall Dubai has bragging rights to the Burj Khalifa Tower).

In the Harmon Tower they did not find any rebar deficiencies until the construction built to the 5th floor, that’s when the problem started.  This speaks to an insidious reality of building new Safety Management Systems.  When first stood up, there is often sufficient compiance to the new safety process.  But after the initial fanfare and attention, compliance fades.  This is because these Safety Management Systems failed to reinforce the worker (and supervisor) behaviors needed for the safety process to work.  As we saw with the Harmon Tower’s rebar, we didn’t install the REBAR to support the initial Safety Management Systems adequately.

Do some of your Safety Management Systems suffer from Pencil Whipping.  In my article on Pencil Whipping (see my article here) I defined it as a euphemism used to describe when workers, supervisors and safety managers fill out safety forms such as inspections, JSAs, and behavior-based safety observation cards without actually conducting the observation or audit.  Pencil Whipping is a case where REBAR has been installed in the wrong place; the wrong behaviors are being reinforced.  The behavior of filling out the form got the rebar, not the actual inspection or observation.  Most likely, all the rebar went to behaviors related to production to get the job done instead of for safety.

However, when you build your Safety Management Systems with REBAR in the right places then you reinforce the right behaviors to identify hazards and risk while creating dynamic solutions that reduce injury...on a regular basis.  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 is Behavior.  

Take a moment now to make a list of the behaviors you need to build, in quantity and quality (and they are not the behavior of filling out forms).  Consider not only behaviors that promote safety during work tasks (e.g., PPE wearing, retrieving the right tool for the job, etc.) but also safety process participation behaviors.  And don’t forget 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 behaviors 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, then the subject, followed by the context and purpose.  Simply state: Do what, To what, When, and Why.   (I teach you how to do this in Chapter 7 of my book Dysfunctional Practices).
  2. Make sure your people know what these behaviors are (duh!) 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 during practice sessions.  Then give them feedback until they do the behaviors perfectly.
  4. Informally watch and wait (like watching cement dry) until you see one of the behaviors occurring on it's own.
  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 do this            .”
  6. Repeat 4 & 5 abundantly, and get others to do the same.

How to Reinforce 201

I was down in Alabama visiting a very successful behavioral safety program to understand why it was so strong.  The manager of this distribution facility, I’ll call him Mason, told me a remarkable story.

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 there was 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.  What Mason took back to his own facility was not the mechanics of the behavioral safety process, he eventually got around to that.  What he took back was how much everyone reinforced each other’s behaviors constantly.  He had witnessed the REBAR all over their process and wanted to build his program the same way.

This is how he did it.  It’s pretty elegant and you can do it too.

Back home Mason gathered his supervisors in a meeting.  In this meeting he asked them to each praise 5 workers a day for a specific action that promoted safety.  Then he told his supervisors that, at the end of the week, he was going to walk around and interview around 20 employees around the plant.  In these chats he would ask the employee if a supervisor said anything positive to them about safety.  He would take the names of supervisors cited.  If the supervisor’s name was mentioned then Mason would praise that supervisor in the week’s meeting.  The absence of praise for the other supervisors would be be obvious as well.

According to Mason, the supervisors were hesitant at first.  However, they remarked after the first week how easy and pleasant it was.  It turned out that offering praise was reinforcing in and of itself - REBAR!  It didn’t take long for supervisors to just make it part of their routine. Mason told me that, because the supervisors were at 100% after a month, he didn’t have to enforse the 5-a-days any longer.

But the supervisor performance wasn’t the most miraculous outcome.  Mason kept up the interviews with employees because he found them personally engaging and uplifting.  In the second month after supervisors started delivering praise, the employees told him that they themselves started praising their fellow employees for safe behavior!  The reinforcement had gone beyond the supervisors and now employees were doing it more than management!  And their injury rate went WAY DOWN.  

This graph shows Advantage Logistics (SuperValu) South East Regional Facility (SERF) injury rate across 10 years.  “Mason” and his team started laying their rebar in 2005 and fully implemented their behavioral safety program in 2006.  You can see their full report and other exemplary safety programs Accredited by the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS) at

Footnote: Mason’s praise rebar didn’t cost a penny.

So get out the rebar and start build a stronger Safety Culture today.