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Safety Observations: Voluntary or Mandatory?

The Complacency Index: The Value of Voluntary Observations
by Terry McSween

This quarter we introduce a new section to the newsletter; Terry McSween, the president and Chief Executive Officer of Quality Safety Edge, will share his experience on a current topic in Behavioral Safety. Terry welcomes your questions and invites you to email him about an issue you would like to see him address in future columns.

Terry’s first column introduces The Complacency Index; a simple measure for you to detect if your employees are becoming complacent about the risks they face and the practices necessary to keep them safe.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had an instrument that told you when employees in your organization were growing complacent about safety? What would you pay for a “complacency meter” that allowed you to assess the level of safety awareness? The good news is that many of you with a behavior-based safety process have such a metric already available! That is, those of you with a voluntary process have such a metric.

As many of you know, at Quality Safety Edge we recommend that participation as an observer should be voluntary for most organizations. This is often a controversial topic. Many people in both management and safety believe that participation in safety improvement efforts, including conducting safety observations, should be required of all employees. While mandatory participation may be appropriate in rare cases, we believe that voluntary programs generally work better for some organization. For us, this is a clear issue of efficiency versus effectiveness.

Let’s examine the two options in greater detail. Both have their challenges. If you make participation voluntary, your steering committee is going to struggle with encouraging and reinforcing participation. It will be a never-ending task that never will get easier. Sustaining participation will take concerted effort for as long as your process remains in place. Typically, participation will start at a base rate of 20-40% and with an aggressive steering committee it will increase to 60-80% of all employees conducting observations. In our experience, such employees participate in the process because they want to and they generally turn in quality observations. In addition, these observers are more likely to take the time to provide quality feedback on observations to the coworkers they observed. The real challenge for steering committees in organizations with voluntary observations is continually developing meaningful forms of individual recognition and arranging celebrations of team successes. The longer the process is in place, the greater the difficulty of keeping the recognition meaningful to individual employees. Successful recognition requires that the steering committee members know the likes and dislikes of individual coworkers, and this too takes a great deal of effort.

On the other hand, if conducting observations is mandatory, your steering committee is going to struggle with the quality of observations. A greater number of employees will simply “pencil whip” the observation forms and turn them in just to meet the requirement. The longer the process has been in place, the more employees will begin to “pencil whip” the observations because it makes very little difference whether they take the time to do them right or simply turn in the completed checklist. The challenge is often threefold: First, the quality of observations is difficult to measure, so enhancing the quality of observations is fairly difficult and typically requires “calibration observations.” This means that steering committee members must conduct observations alongside of the coworkers who seem to have accuracy problems. This adds a significant burden to the tasks of steering committee members and often contributes to their burnout. Second, the organization has the additional administrative burden associated with having to enter data from poor quality observations. Third, the steering committee now has much more noise in the data. They have much more data to sort through to get to the meaningful information. In short, the whole process begins to feel like a paper chase that does not add enough value to generate good support.

Voluntary Participation

Mandatory Participation

1st Month

12th Month

1st Month

12th Month

## of observers

30

70

100

100

## of observations

120

280

400

400

## of quality observations,
with feedback

120

280

160

120

Time required for
data entry

1 hr 20 min

3 hr 6 min

4 hr 27 min

4 hr 27 min

Non-value added
observations

24

28

240

280

## of needed
“calibration observations”

8

7

60

70

Complacency metric

Yes

Yes

No

No

Table 1; Hypothetical comparison of voluntary versus mandatory participation in behavioral safety observations.

Table 1 presents data to illustrate these points in a hypothetical plant with 100 employees. The steering committee in the organization with voluntary observations has to encourage and reinforce participation in order to increase it from 30% to 70%. They also have a clearer picture of safety in their organization, one not inflated by a large number of forms with meaningless data. The result is that they find it easier to identify and address areas of concern.

The steering committee in the organization with mandatory participation has different challenges. First are the added administrative costs of processing significantly more “non-value added” observations, typically the time required to enter the data into a computer database. Notice during the first month, that the mandatory process does result in slightly more quality observations. Some people who have to do observations will do them well. The greater challenge for the steering committee with mandatory participation is to improve the quality of observations. They have to arrange calibration observations in an effort to coach and improve the quality of observations. This task is made more difficult because many employees are only interested in meeting the required number of observations and have little reason to take the added time to do quality observations.

In truth, both steering committees have their challenges and, to some degree, have to address both issues regardless of the initial strategy. In other words, the steering committee in the voluntary participation process also has to address the issue of quality observations. Likewise, the steering committee in the mandatory participation process will have to address employees who do not conduct observations. From our perspective, the steering committee in the voluntary process has an easier task. It is set up to create a positive workplace by arranging recognition and celebrations.

In our view, the more important point is that the organization with the voluntary process has an effective measure of complacency while the organization with mandatory participation does not. In the early stages, the percentage of employees participating is a great measure of the employees’ acceptance of the process. Later on, it becomes an operational measure of complacency. When employees become complacent about safety, they usually stop participating in safety observations. Using the percentage of participation as a metric of complacency is effective at both the organization and subgroup level. In truth, it may signal other problems. Employees may stop participating if they are angry with their supervisor or for other reasons, but in almost all cases, such a situation warrants special attention because the risk of injury has gone up. That is the point of having a complacency index. It can direct your prevention efforts before an injury occurs, but you only have such an index in a voluntary process.