The Power of the Observer: Sounding the Alarm With Leading Indicators

May 23, 2016
Adding an observation process to a safety program can help re-direct unsafe behaviors and correct unsafe conditions.

As injuries occur, safety management teams work to enhance their safety programs and processes. One addition may be to add an observation process to their program. Studies have shown that conducting observations influence a safer work environment by providing opportunities to re-direct unsafe behaviors and correct unsafe conditions.

The re-direction of these behaviors is driven by leading indicators. Leading indicators are the pieces of your data that, in basic terms, sound the alarm that safety is being handled improperly on the site. The following are examples of leading indicators that specifically were generated by the observation process, and focus mainly on the who, how often and what of the inspection process.

Too Few Observations/Inspections

Although OSHA regulations do not mandate a documented safety inspection, they do require employers to "examine workplace conditions to make sure they conform to applicable OSHA standards." When it comes to having to prove that these examinations have occurred, those who do document find themselves very happy that they did.

Depending on the work at hand, many organizations set a numeric expectation of inspections per week, or even have a daily requirement. Assuming this number is in correlation with the risk level (hopefully it is), the number of inspections per time period is of value. Each observation is a snapshot in time of what is going on at a location – the good, the bad and the ugly. These documented inspections provide insight to those overseeing the safety process.

When the number of inspections conducted begins to decline, it is safe to assume the chances for an incident increase. The cause for the decline may vary. Perhaps the team is short staffed and overwhelmed or the culture on the project has shifted production as a priority over safety. These are leading indicators that safety is not a priority.

No Diversity in Inspectors

Safety management staff performs most of the safety inspections, but should the buck stop there? Can the operations team bring value by examining risk through the observation process? After all, who really has the most influence on the production line or job site? Employees' performance shifts when a known safety staff member walks the work area. Some get nervous. Others decide to take a break or perform a light task. On the other hand, when the front line supervisor or project superintendent is walking around, the attitude is to work hard or even harder to show you are pulling your weight and adding value to the team.

The behaviors and conditions that exist when the operations team walks around often is the common work environment. Observations conducted by a member of operations will provide insight on what the work environment is really like. It also gives the opportunity for the operations team to send the message that safety is just as important as production. The more diverse the observer, the better observation data you will receive. Lack of diversity is a leading indicator that not everyone who has an influence on the employees has the opportunity to provide the observation data needed. Lack of diversity may even imply that the people responsible for safety are only those with a safety title.

100 Percent Safe Inspections

The un-addressable, yet un-ignorable, elephant in the room at many safety meetings is that observation cards are pencil whipped. According to Cary Usrey of Predictive Solutions, "Pencil whipping is a euphemism used to describe when workers, supervisors and, yes, safety managers, fill out observation cards, sometimes in great numbers, without actually conducting the observation (much less providing the critical feedback)." Relying on the count of inspections completed is not enough to make a difference in your safety process. The details within the inspection provide information about the state of the project.

Unfortunately, there is a stigma with putting less than 100 percent safe for an inspection. This occurs for many reasons. Some do not want to trigger a visit from the safety department or upper management. The assumption is that less than 100 percent must mean an unsafe work environment or lack of supervision. Another reason is because they have been told not to document deficiencies. Are they correcting issues? Of course they are; however, they are not documenting them. Documenting deficiencies may not be an approved practice. Some organizations want to give the impression that they perform 100 percent safe all the time; however, if the observers continue to submit 100 percent safe observations, your data will show zero leading indictators.

You cannot track, trend or learn twhat is not documented. Unsafe observations are the snapshots of the behaviors and conditions on the project. These are the precursors of incidents. The unsafe observations tell a story about the risks the team is taking. Unsafe observation data will provide the safety team the information they need to have conversations with individuals and teams to eliminate the potential for an incident.

Too Many Unsafe Observations

On the other end of the spectrum are too many unsafe observations. While collecting unsafe observations provides a picture of the risks the teams are taking at a particular time, too many unsafe observations tells a story about how safety is being managed on a project (or rather, how it's not). Observers will find unsafe conditions and behaviors as they walk their work areas; however, the number and severity of the observations should be at a steady decline versus an incline if the culture is focused around safety.

A continuous high percentage of unsafe observations is a leading indicator that the project is mismanaging the unsafe behaviors and conditions. The steady incline can be an indication the observers are not coaching those who are in violation. Instead, they are simply recording the issue they corrected. Recording the violation is but one step of the process. The step that makes a difference in how people perform their work will depend on the coaching and information they receive after the violation is discovered.

The Super Leading Indicator

Observation leading indicators are just a few of the many indicators that safety managers can use to help eliminate incidents. These examples are just a few of the most important leading indicators. As this list continues to grow, safety professionals are feeling overwhelmed.  In many cases, the amount of information collected to make smart decisions about preventing risk on our worksites has become so tremendous that we can't parse out the essential information from the noise. This is where perhaps the most important leading indicator comes into play – predictions.

While humans struggle to juggle this much information, computers thrive off of abundant information. With advances in computing power and machine learning, computers are able to predict more with regard to our daily lives with accuracy that is startling. Why, then, don't we use this power in preventing injuries? It is time to use technology to combine this pile of information into a super leading indicator – prediction.

Nick Bernini, manager of predictive analytics for Predictive Solutions, can be reached at [email protected]. Grace Herrera, process improvement leader for Predictive Solutions, can be reached at [email protected].

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