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Behavioral Safety Observations: A Two Dimension Approach

Observational checklists are an important component of every behavior-based safety process, but there is a lot of variability in the items, the length of the observation list, and how the observations are accomplished.

  • Length – some observational checklists are several pages long; they are more like safety audits than behavioral observations, while other lists have as few as 3 or 4 behaviors.
  • Items – many observational lists have warnings, instructions, and practices; some have very specific behaviors – ergonomically precise.
  • Lists vary in focus; many check every possible combination of possibilities while other lists focus on at-risk behaviors that statistically have proven to be lead to employee injuries.
  • Some observations lists require 30 minutes plus to complete while the short behavioral list can take less than 30 seconds.

So what is the best type of list to have? What gets the best results?

The data is inconclusive; every type of checklist has the potential to reduce injuries – and 15 years of highly variable in-house and out-house checklists – that have led to favorable results, indicates that the checklist itself is not the most critical factor in BBS process success.

In my opinion, every behavior-based safety process should have two types of observations checklists:

  • A thorough audit that incorporates all the conditions, precautions, behaviors and practices relevant to the department or work group. These audits would be about 30 minutes long, comprehensive, and performed on a frequent basis.
  • A two or three behavior checklist that observers keep in their back pocket which they can whip out and check off in 10 or 15 seconds; a checklist focused on critical at-risk behaviors that the work group upgrades as the work environment requires.

The first, lengthy observational audits should be scheduled; the second, opportunistic behavioral observations should be spontaneous – when the work requires certain at-risk behaviors to be performed, or when employees are working together and can do quick observations without interfering with the tasks at hand.

The two-dimensional observation strategy allows you to obtain both comprehensive data and a high number of unannounced observations – for increased data validity. Announcing observations has always been the preferred method; it eliminates trust issues and allows employees to become comfortable with being “watched” while they work.

The fact that employees behave differently when they know they are being watched has been eschewed by consulting providers and broadly in the literature, but anyone with commonsense knows that it corrupts the data and makes the value of the observation questionable.

If you participatively engage your employees in spontaneous, brief observations (anonymous of course), you can collect hundreds of data points per week and the data is more reliable - it reflects the way employees are really working. Using this type of observations, you see employees doing their work naturally – not self-consciously. It is imperative that you get the permission and involvement of all employees in this process.

The short, critical, in-the-pocket observation list combined with the longer, more thorough audit type observations enriches and deepens your observation process. There is no absolute authority on observations, and for the last 20 years announced lengthy observations has been the method of choice.

The Critical-Behavior, in-the-pocket observation process has been used successfully in dozens of applications and the results have indicated that it is the observational process of choice when you want to impact employee safety quickly. One key element of the variable observation approach is to make sure employees are empowered to change the behaviors as needed. This ensures participation, and the robust relevance of the behaviors.

Many companies have overlooked true behavioral observations because they assume that safety is a complex topic and there are many factors that contribute to at-risk behavior – and I agree. But the belief that you have to have one or the other – that you cannot do both for increased impact – is overlooking the realities of the observational environment and its effect on employee behavior.