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Speaker Spotlight: The safety observation blueprint

August 25, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every year, the National Safety Council Congress & Expo features some of the top thought-leaders and motivators in the occupational safety and health community. Safety+Health has invited the most highly rated presenters to contribute to this monthly column. For more on this year’s event, visit congress.nsc.org.

Almost all companies conduct some form of worksite safety inspections. This process is typically part of the traditional landscape of a comprehensive health and safety plan. At regular intervals, someone within the organization sets out to conduct observations to ensure work is being performed safely. It is important to clearly define the safety observation process in organizations to achieve maximum benefit from the activity and avoid a “checking-the-box” exercise.

Conducting worksite safety inspections should be fueled by more than just compliance. The focus should be strategic and based on known history, upcoming schedule of work and associated level of risk. The purpose should be to assess work being performed, understand how and why deviation occurs, and make proactive and positive adjustments aimed at preventing injuries.

Additionally, the process should be focused on positive outcomes and not on negative aspects such as blame. For those conducting safety inspections, clear expectations must be set and training conducted to avoid a “whack-a-mole” mentality of walking a beat, pointing out negative findings and issuing citations. Beyond hazard recognition awareness, the inspector should be trained on how best to approach and coach the workers being observed.

Besides a noble purpose, the observation events should be social in nature. Never should observers conduct an inspection like a seagull – fly by, squawk loudly, leave a mess and fly off. Observations should be a two-way conversation aimed at developing an understanding and providing mutual benefit. They are only as good as the conversation they elicit. Observation learnings should be openly shared both at the individual level and beyond if there are key learnings that would benefit others. Excluding this social aspect turns safety inspections into contentious paper exercises.

If we subscribe to the proposition of safety observation data providing value, it is necessary to develop a data use plan. This is a structured approach to disseminating information collected by the observers so that data-driven decisions can be made. The conversations are a great start but the success will be short-lived if it is believed that the collected information is going into a proverbial black hole.

For example, the data can indicate what controls are and are not being focused on, what areas of a facility have and have not been observed, and what key learnings are trending and can be shared with the broader organization. The plan for using the data can be relatively simple, such as communication and sharing of information, or more complex, such as convening learning teams to review commonalities in trends for the purpose of improving the process.

Although most companies have a safety observation program in place, very few organizations have taken the time to clearly define the purpose or the techniques necessary to achieve success. Companies often assume that a health and safety plan – complete with detailed policies and procedures – is being followed everywhere and all the time exactly as intended. An effective safety observation program can either confirm or dispute those assumptions with detailed evidence.

In essence, safety is the presence of controls and not simply the absence of injuries. Observations can be used to ensure those controls are working as intended. Once realized, the organization can then take the necessary proactive steps to align intentions with actualities in a positive manner for the benefit of all involved.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Cary Usrey has been a process improvement leader at Predictive Solutions since March 2007. In this role, he is responsible for implementing solutions and best practices for customers seeking to prevent worker injuries through the use of an integrated safety management system that focuses on leading safety indicators.