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The Value of Mandatory Participation in a Behavior-Based Safety Process

A year or two ago, I wrote a column that outlined QSE’s position that voluntary participation is the best option for most organizations. I proposed that using “% Participation” as a metric of complacency and the better quality of observations in a voluntary process justified the added work associated with promoting participation.

In this article I want to explore the benefits of mandatory participation and some of the circumstances when a mandatory approach is appropriate. Those of you familiar with Quality Safety Edge recognize that we do not believe in a “one size fits all” approach and that we believe that different organizations have different needs. I can think of two different QSE clients that implemented mandatory observation processes and I have no doubt that we will see more, especially as we increase our work internationally. 

First, let’s talk about the benefits of mandatory observations. The most obvious benefit is that such efforts are simply easier to sustain. Leadership and the Safety Committee do not have to do as much work to promote ongoing participation in observations. They still have to remind employees to do observations, and typically such organizations benefit from recognizing quality observations and those with outstanding participation in conducting observations. 

Second, and this may come as a surprise to many, but one study (DePasquae & Geller, 1999) suggests that employees have more positive opinions of Behavior Based Safety (BBS) processes that have mandatory observations. Though I consider this data preliminary and would like to see more studies, particularly studies that control for the level of participation, I believe the findings of this study. In a mandatory process, people who would not have otherwise volunteered to do observations may be more likely to participate. Once they experience the observation process, perhaps seeing a coworker making a change to work more safely, they may come to view BBS as a positive factor in their organization’s safety improvement efforts. 

So, when is mandatory observation an appropriate fit for an organization? First, the level of trust should be high enough that employees are not concerned that information collected during observations will be used against them. Second, such an approach is often more appropriate for smaller facilities, like distribution centers, that employ an average of 15 to150 people. Trust is easier to sustain in smaller groups that are more likely than larger organizations to nurture a sense of “family’ among team members. In addition, smaller organizations often need to get a high level of participation just to ensure they have an adequate sample size. Organizations with more than 300 employees should generally consider making their observation process voluntary for all of the reasons quoted in the article referenced above. 

Also, as discussed in my President’s Column last month, mandatory observations are more appropriate for BBS processes with “designated observers”—employees who volunteer for the position of BBS observer or crew safety rep—who conduct area observations with their peers. Generally, once such employees are trained, observations are considered part of their job. 

What is the downside of mandatory observations? The issue is quality. Anytime that observations are part of the job, the risk is that employees check the box and turn the observations in, without taking a critical look at how safely their coworkers are performing their jobs. This is another reason that mandatory observations are more appropriate for smaller organizations and those using designated observers. Quality is easier to maintain in those situations. In large organizations, having a mandatory observation process for all employees is too often a recipe for pencil whipping, simply filling out the checklist without any basis and with no feedback to others. 

At QSE, we are committed to helping organizations design a BBS process that truly fits their needs. We continue to be skeptical of the “one size fits all” approach, and the superficial, “This is all you have to do . . .” approach that is often being promoted these days around the globe.