Workplace Solutions Safety program management

Building flexibility into safety program management

How do I build flexibility into a safety program to manage dynamic risk or changing conditions?


Responding is Warren Picken, implementation specialist, SafeStart, Belleville, Ontario.

The risk of workplace injury is constantly shifting based on two factors: physical or environmental changes, and the personal attention that each worker pays to hazards. Because risk levels are always in flux, safety management systems need to look beyond the traditional risk matrix and take a flexible, responsive approach to risk management. And that starts with safety education.


Most safety programs take reasonable steps to address changes to physical environments (like spills or moving work equipment) by outlining housekeeping standards. Worksites with a high degree of volatility in terms of hazards, such as construction sites, also educate employees on how to deal with changes to the physical environment.

However, the dynamic nature of personal attention to risk is rarely addressed in safety systems. Few workers fully recognize just how much their attentiveness can change through the day because of states of mind and other human factors.

Robust safety programs must include dedicated training on how mental states such as rushing, frustration, fatigue and complacency can compromise safety awareness. Classroom-style education is necessary to provide a baseline understanding of what compromises risk.

Education is a mandatory component of dynamic risk management, but several other major components also are necessary to adequately address dynamic risk, including strong awareness skills, regular contact from supervisors, motivation and measures specifically focused on minimizing complacency to risk. Let’s review the first two in a bit more detail.

Awareness skills

Awareness skills allow workers to effectively respond when workplace conditions deviate from what they were when a risk assessment was last conducted. The goal is to empower people to recognize and respond to hazards and human factors that affect risk in real time.

It’s important to recognize that awareness is a skill – it improves with deliberate practice and atrophies when not used for a period of time. Safety awareness is no different, and as Dennis Carnrike points out, one of the steps to improve safety skills and maximize knowledge retention is to provide plenty of practice.

This means offering workers opportunities to discuss how human factors can affect safety awareness, identify human factors at play in workbook exercises and verbal scenarios, and practice spotting human error as it occurs throughout the day.


Because risk is constantly shifting, supervisors should be trained on how to positively check in with workers to assess how well they’re recognizing hazards in the moment. Interventions should occur often enough that they’re viewed as a regular part of the day and should be short enough to not be considered obtrusive. Regular check-ins also will provide supervisors with immediate safety feedback, allowing them to identify potential issues as they arise and then make other safety interventions if necessary. It’s worth noting that few supervisors naturally possess the skills required to conduct an effective check-in, and training should be provided to coach supervisors on how to do so.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)