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How to Choose the Optimal Behavior Based Safety Observation Process

By Terry McSween, QSE President

Having written on self-observations a few issues back [See “Self-Observation” in QSE newsletter, June 10, 2009], I’d like to discuss different types of peer observations, in particular individual observations versus area observations. The difference between the two is really who is being observed, because both cases involve a single observer. Typically, in individual observations, the observer finds another employee working, observes that employee, and gives the employee feedback.

With an area observation, the observer may observe an individual employee within a specific work area and provide feedback, but then the observer continues walking through the area to find another employee or a small group of employees who are working together. He or she would then observe the individual or group (whichever the case may be) provide feedback, deliver the observation form, and return to his/her normal job responsibilities. Two primary factors determine which type of observation process to use. One factor is whether all employees or just a select group of employees (such as steering team members) are dedicated to doing observations, but usually the deciding factor or driver in this decision is the nature of the work.

Individual Observations

In process plants, when a person goes to do an observation, he/she typically finds an individual or maybe even a couple of people working on the same job. If two maintenance employees are working on a common task, for example, they can be observed as an individual unit for feedback. In other words, a small crew would be observed almost as one, and the observer gives feedback to both members of the crew, usually at same time in a single discussion. These types of “individual” observations are best suited for process plants, pipelines, utilities, and construction sites with few or even lone employees who work in different or remote locations.

In this scenario, the observer sets out armed with a checklist of behaviors that are typically scored as safe or as a concern (all or nothing). This approach is more common in safety efforts that promote the involvement of all employees in performing safety observations. Here, participation is measured by the percentage of employees who are conducting observations because the organization is focused on getting everyone involved in the observation process.

Area Observations

Area observations are more appropriate for manufacturing facilities, for example where one might find an assembly line. Observers may walk down the line and observe employees at different stages, or the facility may be divided into areas so that observations can be done in a single area such as shipping and receiving, the laboratory, or the manufacturing area. The point is that the areas for observation are pre-defined and observers walk through an area completing as many observations as their time boundaries allow (typically 15 to 20 minutes) using an area-specific checklist. The areas often correspond to production areas, departments, buildings, and assembly lines, or may be mapped/drawn on a plot plan.

This approach is particularly appropriate for processes with designated observers, rather than all employees participating in observations. The advantage of area observations is a high contact rate; that is, more observations and feedback discussions can be conducted per observer.

In the area observation process, the company focuses more on the number of employees being observed/contacted rather than how many employees are doing observations. Though the observer tours an area and gives feedback to each employee observed, the behaviors are recorded on a checklist as a frequency count of behaviors that are safe or of concern. This allows for an overall assessment of each area’s safety.

Written Comments

Whether your workplace calls for individual or area observations, the observers’ comments—particularly for any behaviors of concern—are very important. Although positive comments are beneficial for feedback, details concerning behaviors of concern provide crucial data for future intervention. A comment for any behavior listed as a concern should describe the behavior and task being performed; if possible elaborating on not only what those being observed were doing, but what they said about why they were doing it. This type of detail provides some of the necessary information for understanding the context of the actions and allows accurate completion of an ABC Analysis on areas of concern.

Choosing the Right Approach

It is possible, but rare, that a facility will implement both types of observations. Usually the operational design dictates whether to use individual or area observations. Although the major dimension in this decision is based on whether individual or area observations are best suited for a facility, another consideration, as stated earlier, is whether all or a designated group of individuals will be making observations. Overall, the decision as to which observation approach is most appropriate should be based first on the nature of the facility (processing plant or manufacturing).

That said, when appropriate to the type of facility, the best possible design is a voluntary process encouraging all employees to conduct area observations, because it maximizes both participation and frequency of observations and feedback. The trade-off is that it takes a lot of work to keep everyone volunteering to participate. But keep this in mind: Data shows that employees who perform observations have a lower risk of injury and work more safely even if they don’t receive feedback, so the more you get people involved in doing the observations, the more effective your BBS process will be.