Getting the Most from Your Management Observations

Management Observations

In previous articles we have discussed what management observations should look like and why they are so important to safety.  This article will look more deeply at “how” these observations maximize their effectiveness.

There are several steps an organization should complete before they conduct management observations:

  1. Training.  In addition to having some idea of likely hazards and controls, anyone performing work observations needs to understand how to look, listen and learn without intimidating the workers.  Training for some organizations includes mentored observations with an experienced “expert” but every observer should also be trained in how to actively listen as well as root cause analysis. 
  2. Pick Activities Worth Watching. Not all activities are equally important.  Since management’s time is limited and highly valuable, it should focus on the most important (high consequence) activities first. High risk work or operations with a history of accidents are good places to start.
  3. Prepare Employees. Employees should know to expect their supervisors in the workplace periodically and understand that an element of the observation program is the fault free observation of their work – for the mutually beneficial cause of improving safety and efficiency.
  4. Prepare Yourself.  Think ahead about what work activities to expect and the associated hazards and potential error traps. If there is a procedure or JSA governing the work, or accident reports associated with past work, review them before going into the field.  Importantly, be sure you know the rules – especially the safety rules. A terrible message is sent to employees when supervisors break their own safety rules. Make certain you read and obey all posted signs and warnings. – no exceptions!

Making Observations in the Field

Every observation should start with some amount of time spent watching a work activity. This is fundamental and is what differentiates observations from more traditional compliance-based inspections that focus on unsafe conditions or behaviors. Often workers will stop what they are doing when observers appear on the scene. If this happens, workers should be requested to return to work so the observation can continue.  There is always some skewing of work performance when managers are present, but experience shows that this distortion diminishes considerably over time as workers come to expect management observations as a matter of course and view them positively.

Listen to Your Workers:  Observers need to remember that the goal of work observations is to look, listen, learn, and improve.  Workers respond favorably when their management shows an interest in their work, and in them personally.  Most importantly, listen to what the workers have to say.  I’ve seen one suggested ratio of 30% talking and 70% listening.  I don’t have a specific ratio to recommend but the importance of active listening cannot be overemphasized.  Very few managers are good listeners, however.  Active listening is a skill that must be learned and practiced.  When leaders listen attentively to their employees those workers are much more likely to become proactively engaged.  Why?  Because they are getting what they all crave from their leaders (and peers) – respect (O’Toole, 1995).

To encourage productive dialogue here are a few sample questions observers might choose to help engage the workers.

  • What part of this job do you consider the most hazardous?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen if something went wrong as a result of this work?
  • Have you (or someone you know) ever experienced an injury, or near miss, performing this work?
  • What, if anything, about this job needs additional attention?
  • How do you resolve safety problems when they arise?
  • Which rules or procedures do you find difficult (or hazardous) to use?
  • What changes would you implement to make this job safer and/or more efficient if you had the authority to do so?

When observers do ask questions, however, it is important to remember that interactions with workers are not an inquisition, and must be, except in the most extreme circumstances, fault free. Employees should not feel like they are on trial or in jeopardy for their jobs. Observers should make it a point to put the workers at ease, listen humbly and ensure that the employees have ample opportunity to ask their own questions as well as make suggestions for improvement.  Every observation should be a win-win.

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Jim Loud

Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations.

Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.


O’Toole, J. (1995). Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.

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