How valuable is the information you are currently getting from your behavioral safety observations? Is it worth the time your employees are putting into the process? Safety observations have been a part of everyday life in many organizations for decades, and there are many different schools of thought and opinions about their effectiveness and how they should be done. I work with companies large and small, across multiple industries and I can tell you that for some companies it works wonderfully and truly helps reduce risks, and for others, they simply go through the motions and get very little out of it.
Like anything in life, if you do it correctly, for the right reasons, and stick with it, you’ll usually get a good result. I am not going to get into that in this short blog. What I would like to do is simply share a few ideas that can help your observations be more impactful and add more value to your company’s overall safety objectives.
Focus your observations on SIFs. Recently I heard about a safety observation being done on “someone making coffee” and on “employees taking a break.” Seriously? While that is probably a comical extreme, it does happen. I think companies often forget why they started doing observations in the first place. At the end of the day, the end goal is to help prevent injuries, isn’t it? This is especially true for serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs), which impact lives the most. More and more organizations with best-in-class safety performance are focusing their efforts on SIFs and work activities that have high SIF potential.
For example, one organizations we work with, who is a global manufacturing company with a current TRIR of only 0.6, is now doing what they call “focused observations.” This means that observations are only done on activities that have already been identified as having SIF potential based on previous data or incidents. Doing this ensures that when people do conduct observations, they are investing that time observing the things that really matter and have a much higher potential to prevent serious harm. After all, this was their goal all along. One manager there told me that it results in fewer observation forms than before, but they produce much better quality and in-depth information, and there are no more “pencil-whipped” forms that are almost blank. By taking this approach, the observation process increases in terms of value, and as long as people follow through with any corrective actions from the observations, employees will be more motivated to conduct them.
Do group observations as well as individually. Other organizations sometimes modify their approach to fit their culture and they conduct observations in groups rather than just individually. While this can initially seem as though it would create potential anxiety for the person being observed, if it is communicated and done properly, this approach can create a nice dynamic which elicits a broader set of questions, input and feedback. It can spark insightful and useful dialogue that would not normally surface with just one person observing a task. While this practice is common in activities such as Gemba Walks, where representatives from various departments walk around a site looking for potential hazards and safety behaviors, during an observation of one specific task, a small group of employees can dedicate their full attention to the behaviors and conditions associated with that particular task. By generating new and more diverse points of view, there is a greater potential for impact and value in the process.
Remember that we all have unique SafetyDNA. Stephen Covey once said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I love that quote because we can apply it to so many things in life (in and outside of work) and it will always help. When conducting an observation using a checklist, it can be easy to make snap judgments or critiques about the way someone is going about a task. While it is important to ensure that employees follow safety procedures and avoid at-risk behaviors, it is also important to understand “where they are coming from,” and try to see things from their unique perspective. Giving the employee the chance to explain why they are doing something a certain way by asking questions and actively listening, it opens up the door for constructive dialogue and a successful outcome.
But where do people get their own unique perspective from? Why might an employee make a different decision than you would make during a maintenance procedure or while working at heights, even though you are both working from the same playbook and policy manual? Lots of reasons – experience, knowledge, as well as their psychological traits. Their own SafetyDNA traits, such as their levels of awareness, how they perceive rules, and their comfort level with risk, all shape and form their perspective. These characteristics all influence how a person performs a task, and as you observe them, it’s important to take that into account. They may see things differently, and whether they are right or wrong, it’s important to understand why they see it that way, so that you can better help them to change the behavior if, in fact, it puts them at risk of injury.
Make it a positive experience. Let’s be real. Lots of people are not huge fans of being observed by someone else who is looking to see if they are forgetting to do something, or doing something incorrectly. In general, human nature is to be a bit defensive, and even in organizations with great safety cultures, this can be uncomfortable for both the observer and the person being observed. One of the easiest, but most important, ways to combat this dynamic is to always make the overall experience positive. We have heard these things before, but it’s always important to do the little things, such as: starting the interaction off on a positive note and putting the employee at ease, maintaining a positive demeanor throughout, and when giving feedback, starting with the positive whenever possible. We want to provide constructive feedback and point out things that could increase exposure to risk, but remember that “constructive” does not have to mean “negative.” It’s all in how you do it and how you say it, and by keeping it positive, we can greatly improve the experience for participants.
These four simple ideas can help improve the lasting impact of a company’s observation process by focusing efforts where they matter, expanding the conversation, and making observations more personal and positive for employees.