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Observation and Team-Management Processes

Terry E. McSween, Ph.D.

Today’s behavioral safety systems have two distinct elements: a behavioral observation process and a team-based management process. Both of these elements are critical. The observation process is an educational process that encourages employees to work more safely on the job. The team-based management process ensures the maintenance of the observation process and ensures that the process is adaptive to a changing workplace.

The Behavioral Observation Process

Creating a process that actively involves employees in conducting safety observations helps ensure that employees work safely in several ways. First, observations benefit both the observer and the employee being observed. Obviously, the employee being observed benefits from the feedback. The feedback makes the employee more aware of the risk of injury that results from a particular approach to the task and ideally prompts a different approach that reduces the risk. Less obvious perhaps, the observer benefits from conducting the observation. Conducting an observation sensitizes the observer to such risk for the next time he has to do that task. In addition, our society values “walking the talk” and once the observer talks to other employees about a particular safety practice, the social dynamics increase the likelihood that the observer will perform the job in a safe manner. In other words, for most of us, if we preach to others about using fall protection, we are more likely to use fall protection the next time it is required even if no one is around to observe us. We begin to internalize safety as a value.

Further, a behavioral observation process benefits both new and seasoned employees. It ensures (1) that experienced employees remain aware of the risk associated with short-cutting safety procedures; and (2) that new employees gains a better understanding of the risks involved in their work.

The key to an effective behavioral observation process is designing a high level of employee ownership. Involving employees in designing the behavioral safety process helps ensure this ownership. Employees from all areas volunteer for a behavioral safety design team. Design team members should generally be employees that have a strong personal commitment to safety and are informal leaders among their fellow employees. Typically the design team will complete the following steps:

  1. Assess the organization to identify factors that must be addressed to ensure the success of the new process.
  2. Design an observation checklist based on (a) an analysis of accidents that have occurred within the organization over the past three to five years, (b) accidents experienced by similar organizations, and (c) input from employees and safety professionals within the company.
  3. Develop a procedure for conducting observations that is realistic given the nature of the work.
  4. Plan a team process for using the data that includes reviewing the data in safety meetings and a review and analysis by the design team (which may be called a Steering Committee for the process after the design phase).
  5. Develop an observer training workshop and plans for training all employees to conduct observations.
  6. Devise a plan for recognition to support the process. This plan should encourage participation, completion of observations, quality feedback during observations, and improvements achieved as a result of the process. Ideally, it should provide recognition to individuals that champion safety and teams that achieve success through the process.
  7. Gain management support for the process by planning their role, reviewing the process and incorporating their input.

(For a more detailed treatment of the design process, see McSween, 1995.)

A behavioral safety process usually has several key elements:

  • A systematically developed checklist
  • A process for conducting regular observation
  • Immediate behavioral feedback based on observations
  • A review of observation data in employee safety meetings
  • A Steering Committee that reviews data and develops plans for recognition and continuous improvement

A Fictional Example

The following story illustrates a typical observation process.

At the end of Monday’s safety meeting, the tool pusher, Randy, announces that he will conduct a safety observation of the rig on Tuesday. The next Tuesday afternoon Randy gets Jim, one of the hands, and says “Come along with me. I want to do a safety observation of our rig and would like for you to come see how these are done so that you can do them later on. Your participation is completely voluntary but it’ll help ensure a safer place to work for all of us.”

Jim agrees to go along. As they start their tour of the rig, Randy and Jim discuss the fact that, very soon, every employee on their tour will finish observation training and be participating in the observation process. Everyone will be partners in safety and sharing responsibility for achieving it.

When Randy and Jim arrive on the rig floor, Randy takes a detailed, one-page checklist out of a folder. Without referring to it, the two men first scan the work area and ask themselves (after Randy explains the procedure to Jim) “What do we see the employees doing that could cause someone to get hurt?” They note one such practice on the checklist. They then review the checklist and mark each safe practice and check areas of concern. They do not record the names of any of the employees they observe on the checklist.

After completing their observation, they approach the employees and review the checklist with them. Randy says, “We noticed that you were 100% safe on your use of personal protective equipment. Your tools are well organized and you were using the right tools for the work you were performing. However, I also noted a small puddle of oil to one side of your work area. I was concerned that someone might slip in the oil and injure themselves.” Randy and Jim answer a few questions then Randy asks the group to clean up the oil. Randy and Jim then return to the office where Randy shows Jim how to complete the checklist by calculating a “% safe” index. He records the safety percentage on a running graph on the safety bulletin board and put the completed checklist into a three-ring binder. All in all, the two men spent about 30 minutes completing the observation and documentation.

The next Monday morning, Randy shows employees at the weekly safety meeting the data from the previous week's safety observations. Jim and another employee who had served as observers report the data from their observations, beginning with naming those practices on which employees were 100% safe during all observations. Randy tells them he appreciates their efforts and to keep up the good work. He then discusses his and Jim’s concern about keeping the work areas clean of oil that could create a slipping hazard and the importance of not allowing oil to be released into the environment. The employees as a group agree to try to eliminate such hazards for their next four tours. At the end of the month, one of the crew summarizes the observation data and sends it into the division office where a secretary enters it into a database.

At the end of the quarter, the division’s Steering Committee meets to review the observation data and any accidents or incidents that occurred during the quarter. The Steering Committee is made up of an employee representative from each rig. Since this is normally their time off, they are paid to come in for the meeting. The data base provides a summary report to the Safety Steering Committee. After reviewing the data and the comments about oil spills on different observation forms from several different rigs, the committee decides to work on reducing oil spills throughout the company. As part of their action plan, they provide a video and training materials on cleaning up hazardous materials for the crews to review during the next month’s safety meeting on each rign. They hope these training materials would assist rig personnel in their efforts to provide a safe work place and protect the environment.


While this fictional case study illustrates many of the key elements of the process, the actual logistics vary extensively depending of such factors as the size of the crews, the remoteness of the rigs, and a host of other factors. In some cases, for example, employees have to conduct self-assessments because the number of employees is too small to allow peer observations. Such observation based, behavioral safety processes have proven to be an effective tool for achieving continuous safety improvement in a wide variety of organizations both on-shore and offshore.

The Team Management Process

An effective management system typically has at least three key elements: a data-based feedback system, management involvement, and a process for involving employees in continuous improvement efforts. The feedback system communicates information about performance through all levels of the organization. Such data is usually summarized in a simple, easy to understand report that provides a profile of key measures that reflect each of the following measurement parameters:

  • Safety
  • Quality
  • Production
  • Costs
  • Schedule

The purpose of the feedback process is to provide information about current performance to guide future performance. The information helps those within an organization know when they are on track and when they need to do something different. It helps clarify responsibilities and establish priorities within the organization. Generally, the information is summarized in a weekly or monthly report and distributed through all levels of the organization. The primary purpose of the information is for employees to use in developing action plans, while the secondary use is for management review.

In safety, the feedback system provides information from three different sources: statistics on accidents and injuries, results of audits conducted by management and staff personnel, and data from observations conducted by employees. The true value of this information comes from how it is used by teams of employees. Employees should review data from these sources and use the information to develop action plans for improving safety on their rigs or in work areas. Of these three types of data, the observation data collected by the employees is the most important. Observation data helps employees identify practices that are putting employees at risk of injury. The team can then identify the root cause, and develop appropriate action plans for improvement. They can decide whether the risk is a result of failure to follow a procedure, a procedure that needs to be rewritten, or a poorly designed job task (for example, poor valve placement that requires a body position that puts the employee at risk of shoulder or back injury).

Employees can use the data more easily when it is presented on graphs. Pareto charts that reflect the areas of concern that occur with the greatest frequency or in the larest percent of observations can help the team identify those concerns that need the most attention. In addition, run charts illustrate trends and can help anticipate problem areas or show that improvement efforts are working.

Often safety teams at two different levels review these data. The first level is the natural work team of employees who work together such as on an oil rig or within an area of a plant. The natural work team is usually those employees who already meet together for safety meetings. The second level is a Steering Committee that reviews the data for an entire region, area, or plant site. This team takes a broader look at the risks that are affecting the entire organization and develops action plans appropriate for their level within the organization. The Steering Committee also is responsible for maintaining the safety observation process, so they review data on how well the process is functioning and develop action plans accordingly. Their review includes data on the number of observations being conducted versus the number planned, as well as, the percent of employees conducting observations on each rig, or in each area.

Data from incident and accident investigations are also important. First, the accident investigation obviously provides information on practices and conditions that need attention. Such information must be shared throughout the organization, usually through discussion in safety meetings so that everyone has the opportunity to learn from the incident. Often, such investigations will have implications for the safety observation process and the Steering Committee (previously the Design Team) can modify the observation process to emphasize a particular practice or condition that contributed to the incident. The investigation may reveal that this particular task was not one that was commonly observed, or it may suggest a safety practice that should be added to the observation checklist. Second, they allow a team to assess the extent to which the observation process is identifying the practices that are causing incidents and accidents.

The observation process is distinct from safety audits conducted by management or the safety staff. When employees conduct observations, they review their checklists with each co-worker they observe and give feedback on their observations. The focus of such observations is practices first, conditions second. Safety audits on the other hand, are conducted by line management or the safety staff and typically focus primarily on conditions. In addition, unsafe conditions identified during audits are formally tracked until they are resolved. The audit process is part of the organization’s formal safety system and focuses on addressing regulatory requirements, while observations are less formal and look for ways to reduce risks that would not typically be addressed formally in written procedures or regulatory requirements.

A Values-Based Behavioral Process

The technology for implementing behavioral safety has gone well beyond the elements described above. A Values-Based Safety®l clarifies expectations that keep the process from becoming a paperwork exercise. It creates a positive work environment that fosters personal pride in safety and a builds concern for the safety of one’s co-workers. The process addresses both the formal systems, such as performance appraisals, and the informal social norms. (The term “norms” in this context is operationally defined as the practices that are socially reinforced by co-workers) In particular, participation in the process should be supported through reinforcement. Participation should not be forced through the use of threats or negative consequences. In addition, the threat of discipline for unsafe practice should be removed, except for life-critical and ethical practices.

Employees support behavioral processes that make sense. In addition, employee champions who truly understand the behavioral process can promote the participation and understanding of their peers. The employee Steering Committee members are the ideal champions and have a formal responsibility to ensure that the behavioral process is functioning properly and to address the most severe and most frequent concerns identified through the observation process described above. The Steering Committee also assesses the social side of the process. They strive to ensure that the process remains positive and remains true to the values of the process.

This paper has attempted to address the Values-Based Safety®l that is built on the basic elements of behavioral safety. It is designed to clarify the expectations of personnel participating in the behavioral safety process in a flexible way that does not restrict them to rigid roles, but provides guidelines, or boundaries, for how the process should be managed. The values-based approach ensures an adaptive process that changes to meet changing needs of the organization. The mature process will adapt to organizational changes such as new employees, an increase in the use of contract employees, or changes in procedures, technology and equipment. The adaptive nature of the process help address one of the biggest challenges in behavioral safety – long term maintenance and keeping the process alive over the long haul.


McSween, Terry E. The Values-Based Safety Process: Improving Your Safety Culture with Behavior-Based Safety. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, NY, 2005.