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The Role of Leadership in Behavioral Safety Observation

By Terry McSween, Ph. D.

Note: This article was initially written for another publication, but was never published. However, we are including it here because we think the information has value and practical application for our readers. —Terry McSween.

Maurice Bazinet, Scott Cook, Chevron Canada Resources and Terry E. McSween, Ph.D., Quality Safety Edge

In previous research published in Professional Safety magazine (“Behavioral Safety in a Refinery,” August 2009), we showed the importance of supervisors participating in observations during the initial implementation phase of a behavioral safety process (the Chevron Accident Reduction Environment (CARE) process).

Our data showed that sites had better employee participation when supervisors regularly conducted behavioral observations. Based on our informal observations, we further speculated that the participation of informal leaders, in this case the CARE representatives (employees who had formal responsibility for facilitating the observation process), was also important.

The study continues in the same organization, Chevron Canada Resources (CCR).  This time we also collected separate specific data regarding the participation of supervisors and CARE representatives in addition to that of participating employees.

During 1999, CCR underwent a significant reduction of workforce and other organizational changes of the kind that often have a negative impact on voluntary participation in behavioral safety initiatives. Our data for 1999 shows again that the participation of supervisors is important in sustaining employee involvement.

The data also suggests that such participation is even more important during times of significant change than during initial implementation. Further, this year’s data expands our informal observations from the previous study and demonstrates the importance of having an active employee champion for the process.

A Naturally Occurring Experiment

In 1999 we had the opportunity within CCR to continue the field study on the role of leadership reported in our earlier article in Professional Safety magazine. During the year, CCR experienced a significant reorganization. The reorganization included selling two locations, creating a joint venture involving one location, reductions in workforce, and consolidating work groups.

The resulting CCR organization has ten teams of employees working at ten production plants and fields compared with 23 teams of employees working at 14 production plants and fields in 1998. The number of field employees dropped from more than 250 in 1998 to approximately 150 in 1999.

In 1998, CCR implemented a behavioral safety process called the Chevron Accident Reduction Environment (CARE) process. (The Professional Safety article provides an overview of this implementation process.)

The process was designed and managed by an employee steering committee that met quarterly to analyze data from the process and develop action plans for addressing safety and process issues. Participation as an observer in the process was voluntary, with a target of two observations per month. Each location designated an employee as the CARE representative who was responsible for facilitating the process.

CARE representatives were selected in various ways—some volunteered for the role or were nominated by fellow employees while others were selected by their supervisors. The CARE representatives ensured that data from safety observations was entered into a company database and reviewed during safety meetings. Supervisors participated in the same way as other employees and were expected to conduct two observations a month.

The Results

The data show that when both the formal and informal leaders consistently perform observations, employees at their locations are more likely to actively participate in conducting observations. At locations where leaders conducted 80 to 100 percent of their observations, an average of 76 percent of the employees participated in conducting monthly safety observations.

Leadership Chart

At locations where leaders conducted 60 to 70 percent of their observations (30 to 35 observations per year), an average of 50 percent of the employees participated in conducting monthly safety observations. At locations where leaders conducted less than 40 percent of their observations (an average of .1 per month), an average of only 27 percent of the employees participated in conducting monthly safety observations.

More employees conducted observations when their supervisors actively participated in conducting observations. These findings replicate the results of the previous study, demonstrating the importance of supervisor participation, and suggest that their involvement in sustaining behavioral safety may be even more critical than during the initial implementation. In fact, data from this study show an even stronger relationship between supervisor observations and employee participation in observations than reported in our earlier study.

More employees also conducted observations when their CARE representatives completed their scheduled observations. These findings extend the results of our previous study by documenting the importance of the involvement of informal leaders (the CARE representatives). In the previous study, we observed that in some cases most employees participated in observations even though the supervisors were not consistently participating.  We speculated that some of this variation might be due to an active CARE representative.

The data from this study supports this hypothesis, indicating that the correlation between CARE representative observations and employee participation, while not as high as that of supervisors, was still an important factor in employee participation.

We should note that behavioral safety was adopted as a strategy to enhance the safety culture through increased employee involvement in order to sustain exemplary safety performance and help prevent the complacency that often occurs when few accidents are occurring.  CCR had a rate of .76 OSHA-recordable injuries in 1997 per 200,000 work hours, and .79 in 1998.  In 1999, the company’s rate of OSHA-recordable injuries was .72 recordable injuries per 200,000 work hours. Company leaders were pleased with the sustained 1999 safety results during this period of significant reorganization and downsizing.


We do not maintain that a leader simply conducting observations is sufficient to support behavioral safety. Clearly, this support consists of such activities as monitoring employee participation, providing feedback, and ensuring that significant safety issues are addressed in a timely and meaningful way. Nevertheless, the active involvement of leaders in conducting observations is a positive indicator of other forms of active support. In addition, by modeling such participation and gaining firsthand understanding that comes from such participation, leaders are able to have more positive dialogues with their employees when promoting safety and encouraging participation in safety observations.

In addition, this study is the first to document the value of having an active employee safety champion who conducts observations in each area as well as the importance of both formal and informal leaders remaining active in supporting observations.

The high correlation between the number of both formal and informal leadership observations and employee participation suggests that organizations will have the best results when both supervision and employee leaders are aligned in support of the process. Having the active involvement of both the supervisor and informal leader should result in more consistent feedback and ensure both better safety and better maintenance of established safety processes.

Future studies should help define the activities that support behavioral safety, beyond simply participating in regular safety observations.

Terry McSween, Ph.D., is the founder, president and CEO of Quality Safety Edge in Montgomery, TX. He is also the founder of Behavioral Safety NOW, an annual professional conference. McSween has more than 25 years of experience consulting in educational, institutional and business settings, and he is the author of The Value-Based Safety Process: Improving Your Safety Culture With Behavior-Based Safety, 2nd ed., as well as numerous publications on the topic of behavioral safety. McSween is a member of ASSE’s Gulf Coast Chapter.