The phrase “pencil whipping” is commonly used in the safety industry to describe the practice of completing inspection forms or checklists without conducting a thorough inspection (e.g., “checking the box”). There are various reasons one might “pencil whip” an audit/inspection, including a lack of time or resources, inadequate training, or simply the presence of a non-committal attitude toward safety. Regardless, pencil whipping is a serious issue that can compromise workplace safety and increase the risk of accidents and injuries. To successfully address this issue, organizations should adopt a multi-faceted approach that covers all the potential root causes. The following are some detailed steps that an organization could take to eradicate this damaging practice.
- Communicate the Purpose: A motivating vision or purpose is the foundation of an effective safety inspection program. If an organization does not establish the driving reason behind the individual actions, it will be harder for personnel to take ownership of those practices. Leaders should communicate the importance of safety to all employees, emphasizing that at-risk findings will be used to drive improvement, not assign blame. Employees should be positively reinforced in their reporting of hazards and unsafe conditions, and management should respond quickly to address these concerns. By eliminating the normal negative impacts from the process, employees have greater potential to understand how inspections (and their actions in general) help everyone reach that purpose and consequently will be less likely to practice “shortcuts” (such as pencil whipping) to cover up any potential mistakes.
- Offer Comprehensive Training: Safety inspectors must receive comprehensive training that covers the technical aspects of the process (e.g., hazard recognition and control), as well as the skills necessary to communicate their findings effectively. This training should cover the specific hazards and risks present in the workplace, the relevant safety regulations and standards, and the protocols for evaluating and mitigating risks. Inspectors should also receive training on soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and problem-solving, which will help them conduct thorough inspections using effective dialogue.
- Implement Quality Control Measures: Quality control measures are essential to ensuring that inspections are being conducted thoroughly and accurately. These measures can include random audits, supervisor reviews, and checks for consistency in inspection findings. Using quality control measures can help organizations identify indicators of potential pencil whipping and provide opportunities for correction and improvement.
- Encourage Employee Participation: Safety inspections should not be “siloed,” or limited to safety/EHS staff alone. All employees should be encouraged to participate in safety inspections and observations. This level of active participation can be made possible by organizations providing their workers with the training and resources that will help them identify and report hazards and other safety concerns. Front-line workers are often the first to notice unsafe conditions or hazards, and therefore, their participation in inspections contributes greatly to the prevention of accidents and injuries.
- Provide Adequate Resources: Safety inspectors must have the necessary resources to conduct thorough inspections. This includes access to equipment, tools, and training. Organizations should provide inspectors with the time and resources necessary to conduct inspections effectively, reducing the pressure to pencil whip due to time or resource constraints.
- Remove Incentives: Organizations should remove incentives for safety inspectors. These incentives usually include gift cards or even bonuses. Incentives can lead to simple paper-pushing exercises and are often void of quality control measurements or accountability. The way that quotas and incentives lead to pencil whipping follows the logical progression of employees prioritizing what is in their own best interest. If meeting a certain metric is rewarded and recognized as a success, “quantity” will get prioritized, and effort will be put toward that over “quality.” Creating an opportunity for open and honest exchanges of information and recognition of value is the best “incentive” available.
- Use Technology: Technological advancements can be implemented to streamline and automate much of the labor involved in safety inspections, reducing the burden on inspectors, and increasing the accuracy and completeness of inspections. Digital inspection tools can help inspectors conduct inspections more efficiently and accurately, reducing the likelihood of pencil whipping. Additionally, these tools can help organizations track inspection data and identify trends and patterns that may indicate areas of risk or opportunities for improvement. Knowing what ‘good’ looks like helps identify outliers in need of coaching and improvement.
- Make Progress Visible: When findings are submitted, organizations should act on them. This demonstrates a commitment to utilizing the provided input to address problems. Then, if these efforts are shared and communicated to stakeholders, employees will see action taken and feel their work was validated. This is a way to positively reinforce individuals for going beyond the minimum requirement and will lead to further hazard recognition and submittal of findings.
Pencil whipping in safety inspection programs is a serious issue that can compromise workplace safety. Addressing pencil whipping successfully requires a commitment to safety, comprehensive training, quality control measures, employee participation, adequate resources, and the removal of incentives that motivate inspectors to prioritize quantity of completed inspections over quality. Organizations must take a multi-faceted approach to address pencil whipping, using a combination of these strategies to promote the understanding and follow-through of actual safety measures. By taking these steps, organizations can encourage the thorough and accurate completion of safety inspections and create a safer workplace for all.
Cary comes to the SafetyStratus team as the Vice President of Operations with almost 30 years of experience in several different industries. He began his career in the United States Navy’s nuclear power program. From there he transitioned into the public sector as an Environmental, Health & Safety Manager in the utility industry. After almost thirteen years, he transitioned into the construction sector as a Safety Director at a large, international construction company. Most recently he held the position of Manager of Professional Services at a safety software company, overseeing the customer success, implementation, and process consulting aspects of the services team.
At SafetyStratus, he is focused on helping achieve the company’s vision of “Saving lives and the environment by successfully integrating knowledgeable people, sustainable processes, and unparalleled technology”.