Safety Observation Training Program

Safety Observation Training Program

In a previous article, A Guide for Workplace Safety Inspections and Safety Observations, the framework to support a robust safety observation program was discussed. Specifically, the fundamental components of a comprehensive framework for an inspection and observation program were highlighted. One of the more critical, and traditionally the least developed, is training the members of the safety observation team.

As a 30-year safety veteran, it would take me many years to train somebody to do an observation across an entire facility the same way I do. While that may not be achievable, singling out a component of a health and safety program, and imparting the necessary training in a short period of time is certainly feasible. For example, one easy component, to begin with, is PPE. Virtually anyone, within minutes, can be taught to recognize hazards related to PPE use. Once the knowledge component has been provided, the observer should visibly demonstrate competency through observation and conversation. From there, that observer can venture out and provide observations and feedback regarding that component.

The observer can ‘graduate’ from PPE safety observations and then advance into other components of the safety program such as Housekeeping, and then to Hand and Power Tools. Eventually, the observer can advance into more complex components such as Control of Hazardous Energy, Fall Protection, or Confined Space Entry. It should be a gradual process, ensuring demonstrated competency at each level. It is important to understand that not everybody has to do an inspection like a safety professional would. If everybody did a small, focused inspection, a small investment by many would yield a tremendous source of feedback. Now, instead of the safety team conducting most of the observations, they can start teaching people to become better observers and analyzing the collected data for insights.

Bear in mind that everybody will be at different levels. You take a 20-year veteran in an industry, like a superintendent in a construction company. That person could be taught very quickly and in multiple different categories. However, a green rookie may take a while to up to speed. If done systematically, using a gradual process, it will be sustainable and will pay dividends.

While existing safety training can support this process, it should not be the sole training provided. There is often a broad assumption that the training provided is sufficient and meets the safety observer training objective. There are several additional factors at play such as specific safety components of equipment and areas, social skills such as interacting with others during a safety observation walkthrough, and documentation of findings. When I served in the United States Navy, we used a Personnel Qualification System (PQS) program.  The Naval Education and Command describes the program as follows:

The PQS is a qualification system for everyone where certification of a minimum level of competency is required prior to qualifying to perform specific duties. A PQS is a compilation of the minimum knowledge and skills that an individual must demonstrate in order to qualify to stand watches or perform other specific routine duties necessary for the safety, security or proper operation of a ship, aircraft or support system. The objective of PQS is to standardize and facilitate these qualifications.

To align safety observation training program to the PQS methodology, there are basically two primary components to this process. The first is instilling knowledge (e.g. How to climb a ladder safely).  The second consists of demonstration of that knowledge (e.g. Climbing the ladder). Within a typical organization, the best method of implementing this approach would be to break this up by safety categories, such as PPE, Housekeeping, Electrical Safety, and Fall Protection.  There several advantages for doing this.  First, the categories typically match both existing regulatory categories and they align with categorization of most safety checklists.  Second, each category or sub-category (e.g. questions within a category) is focused enough so that training could be done in a relatively brief time.  Lastly, the knowledge is specific enough to a hazard, as opposed to a basic overview, such as from most OSHA training.

Each training by category should have both a knowledge and demonstration component identified.  This involves developing training methodology that would be used to impart the knowledge.  In addition, an activity should be designed to demonstrate the knowledge, such as conducting a walkthrough with a safety professional or conducting a hands-on evaluation with tools and equipment. In addition to the technical aspects, the training should include how to approach and coach as well to ensure observers positively intercede when hazards and at-risk behavior are identified and not just document them.

As the training framework is implemented, each observer would have a ‘qual card’ developed to show their progress, category by category. As observations are conducted, each observer should, ideally, be limited to conduct observations based on their qualifications signed off on their ‘qual card’. The process should be developed in such a manner as to make it manageable (e.g. eating the elephant one bite at a time). The benefits are numerous such as defining clear expectations, confidence to participate and intercede, and increased communication and feedback.

Employee involvement is a vital part of any safety management system.  For involvement to be useful, it must be meaningful and beneficial for the employee and the company.  Developing a program that defines the purpose, communicates it respectfully, and provides the tools necessary to fulfill the obligation is what is needed to achieve this benefit.

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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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Personnel Qualification Standard Program – NAVEDTRA 43241-K (2013). Retrieved from the Naval Education and Training Command website:

United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (n.d.). Regulations (Standards – 29 CFR 1926.32(f)). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

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