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 ‘trusted partners.’ In a previous article, Safety Observation Program Defined, certain observation approaches that can lead to poor results were defined. Alternately, some actions create safer work environments and build trust that can lead to positive results. Specifically, an observer must be trained in feedback interactions as well as technical aspects of hazard recognition.
The first key to a successful safety observation is to observe. Time should be spent observing the work in progress. As stated by Todd Conklin, safety is not the absence of injury but the presence of controls. As such, the purpose of a safety observation is to determine the presence of controls as well as their effectiveness. This provides the opportunity to compare ‘work as imagined’ to ‘work performed’.
If any gaps are identified and opportunities to improve do present themselves, it is important to determine why. This should lead to an attempt to better understand the contextual clues that are present and led to this situation. Why was the work performed this way? Was this encouraged by others or a result of the system? Is it safe enough or is there a better way? Inherent in most work are latent error traps that can directly and indirectly impact work performed. It is vital to dig deeper than the surface to determine what these are so that understanding can lead to improvements.
As this process unfolds, feedback should be provided via an interaction. Ideally, the observer and the person being observed should view the interaction in a positive way. If the intent of the safety observation process is to enhance organizational learning as opposed to punish or blame, this is usually the result. Statements that are judgmental or personal criticisms have no place in this exchange. The focus should be on ‘what’ and not ‘who’. One conversational method that can lead to successful interactions is the use of the “COIN” method, described in The Feedback Imperative. The COIN model provides a structured approach to giving feedback in a constructive, non-confrontational manner (Carroll, 2014). According to Anna Carroll, there are key stages for a successful and positive feedback exchange:
- Connection – give the reason you want to have a discussion
- Observation – describe what you have seen
- Impact – discuss why it matters
- Next steps – set expectations around moving forward
Regardless of the conversation method, it is important to follow up on the exchange. Provide frequent updates on the status of any open items such as concerns, hazards, or corrective actions that developed from the interaction. Even if nothing can be done, let the respondent know if their suggestions cannot be implemented and why. Typically, employees do not report safety issues because they never get this feedback.
If continuous improvement is the objective, the quality and frequency of feedback is the most important ingredient for success. The focus should be to reinforce what is desired or expected and not on what should be avoided. To achieve this, personal approaches that are positive and constructive in nature need to be developed. This will allow for a positive exchange of dialogue that is both rich in context and respectful.
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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”.
Carroll, A. (2014). The Feedback Imperative: How to Give Everyday Feedback to Speed Up Your Team’s Success. River Grove Books.
Conklin, T. (2012). Pre-Accident Investigations: An Introduction to Organizational Safety (1st ed.). CRC Press.