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Self-Observations in Behavior-Based Safety

by Terry E McSween

Many of today’s organizations have employees who work independently, either alone or in small crews. Examples of such positions include nurses involved with home health care or hospice, utility linemen, utility meter readers, gas company employees working pipeline, delivery drivers, and many others. In such organizations, a self-observation process is often a better fit and easier to sustain than peer observations.

A recent review of the literature by Ryan Olsen in the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management reports surprisingly strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of self-observations. Unfortunately, the research does not provide clear evidence on the components required to ensure an effective process. I would like to discuss the options and suggest some of the elements that our experience at QSE suggests are important to ensuring the success and maintenance of such efforts.

Self-observations differ from peer observations in several ways. One of the first differences in my experience is the safety checklist itself – self-assessment checklists are often much shorter than peer observation checklists. Second, the observations are usually prompted, or signaled, in some way. Typically, someone, often a supervisor, dispatcher, or administrative support person contacts the employee by cell phone, by radio, or by beeper, to prompt the observation. Often, if the employee is driving, he or she would complete the self-observation checklist when they arrive at their destination, though they might record what they observed when the call was received. In other circumstances, when employees are working in small crews, they might follow a similar procedure. Again, they receive some kind of agreed upon signal, then at their next stopping point, they conduct a safety huddle and complete a self-assessment checklist on the job they were doing. Generally, an effort is made to randomize the time and day of the call with each employee getting a call at some point during the week.

Another difference is the anonymity of the process. In peer observations, the person who is observed is not identified on the checklist, though the observer’s name is recorded so that she gets credit for participation. Obviously in a peer observation process, the observers are the same as the observed, which increases the importance of ensuring the data is used only in a positive way, that is, as the basis for recognition and safety committee action plans.

In order to help sustain the integrity of the process, I think that the ideal self-observation implementation would include periodic “3rd party” observations by either peers or leadership. Often, employees can cross paths or leaders can schedule “ride alongs” that allow for independent observations. The Safety Committee or Steering Committee can compare the independent observation data with self-observations to see if they are appropriately correlated or in need of calibration.

One note on the data; some of the research suggest that self-observation data do not have the same level of accuracy as peer observations. They also, however, report an interesting finding, that self-observers change their behavior and work more safely even though the data are not perfect!

Our experience suggest that employees have trouble self-observing practices that they do not readily recognize, such as desk station ergonomic issues. So be careful using self-observations when training or knowledge issues contribute to areas of concern, or perhaps add supplemental training to help improve hazard recognition with respect to such practices.

One of the things that I have found interesting is that some organizations are reluctant to promote a self-observation process. My experience is that those that give it a try, find that they can easily promote and sustain a simple self-observation process, and more importantly, that the process helps them reduce or eliminate injuries.