Safety Observation Program Defined

Safety Observation Program

In a previous article, Purpose of Workplace Safety Inspections and Safety Observations, it was discussed that safety observations play a critical role in an overall safety management system. Further, the primary objectives of a safety observation program, ideally, are to proactively learn and improve. In this article, the components that make up the safety observation, the best approaches, as well as the feedback process will be defined.

Safety inspections help to identify and record hazards for corrective action through a critical examination of the workplace. At its core, an inspection is simply a collection of one or more safety observations. An observation is an individual occurrence of a condition, behavior, activity, or contextual contributor, such as a psychosocial factor (e.g. stress, trust, communication), coupled with a risk determination of ‘acceptable’ or ‘opportunity for improvement’. The language used for determination varies widely, but the process should be consistent. It is recommended to use terminology that encourages a speak-up culture and a positive exchange of dialogue that lends itself to organizational learning.

When a safety system is built around simply observing and recording results, it can create a culture where workers experience inspectors as ‘unwelcome outsiders’ rather than ‘safety partners.’  There are actions that create safer work environments and build strong cultures. Examples include asking workers how they are going to do their work safely instead of just telling them or balancing constructive feedback to workers when opportunities for improvement are identified with acknowledgments to workers when warranted. Ideally, the purpose of safety observations is to create and encourage helpful conversations between workers, supervisors, and safety personnel with the end goal of better understanding the work and the context that drives safety as well as developing learning opportunities for the organizations. As such, the following approaches should be avoided:

  • Seagull phenomenon

The concept is this – the inspector flies in, squawks loudly, defecates all over, and then flies away. The workers in the area are left with nothing but a mess and a building sense of resentment. While a crude example, this approach is the antithesis of building trust and relationships.

  • Drive-by

How many times do we hear of workers complaining that the inspector did not intervene directly or coach them on how to do their work more safely? Instead, they drive by without stopping or interacting, possibly snapping a photo and silently judging, but keep driving. Often the first word of an issue comes much later when the inspection report is distributed. This approach is both impersonal and discourages the gathering of contextual clues that influence actions and behaviors.

  • Safety Officer

Imagine driving down the highway and then seeing flashing lights behind you. Your heart races as you pull over. The officer approaches and admonishes you for an infraction. Eventually, a punishment, such as a warning or citation, is given. While a slap on the wrist like a citation may sting initially, most find themselves back in the swing of speeding, and the unsafe behavior continues. Eventually, the inspector’s speed traps are communicated in a complex web of worker cues to warn others that the officer is on patrol. At the surface, the inspector feels justified and the inspection report shows activity. However, long-lasting trust in the process, and the interaction is sorely lacking and certainly does not lend itself to long-term positive changes in workplace safety.

The success of any system depends on the richness of its feedback systems. In fact, the frequency and quality of the feedback determine the level of improvement in a continuous improvement cycle. The focus should be to reinforce the behaviors and activities that you want to see continued or increased, rather than on the ones you wish to avoid. As such, positive and personal approaches must be developed and delivered to generate a balanced exchange of context-rich and respectful dialogue.

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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”.

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