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Pinpointing Behaviors and Designing an Observation Card: A First Step in Cultivating the Human Side of Safety

Last month we described the importance of focusing your safety efforts upstream from the traditional measures of safety typically used to evaluate safety success in industry. The suggestion, from the perspective of behavior-based safety, was to create a system in which you can measure on-going safety-related behaviors. Moreover, it was recommended that you involve employees in the process of measurement by having them make peer-on-peer behavioral observations.

This month, I’ll describe the common characteristics of a Critical Behavior Checklist that employees can use to make observations of one another, as well as the importance of each of these characteristics. I will also discuss the inherent benefits to safety at your facility of having employees regularly make behavioral observations.

The Critical Behavior Checklist (CBC) is the foundation of behavior-based safety. Each CBC should have, at a minimum, the following characteristic: 1) a list of the target behaviors, 2) a column to indicate observations of safe behaviors, 3) a column to indicate observations of at-risk behaviors, 4) a space for comments, and 5) some manner of tracking the date of the observation. In the beginning, we also recommend that you include the definition of each safe behavior to ensure that everyone knows not only what to look for, but also what they should be doing to stay safe. The definitions should be as specific as possible. (This may be a topic of future newsletter!)

The target behaviors are listed on the CBC as a guide. Listing the behaviors of interest makes the observation more manageable, given that your list of target behaviors is not too extensive. For this reason, it is important that you pinpoint target behaviors correctly if you expect to see results. Because making observations is likely a new activity for most employees, it is important that you keep the effort at a minimum. As employees become more comfortable with the process, we can require more effort because they have become more expert.

The columns for safe and at-risk observations provide the method by which a “percentage of safe” behavior can be easily quantified and placed on your feedback graph. As a result, an upstream picture of where you stand on certain safety issues can be obtained. And this allows you to concentrate your improvement efforts where they are needed most.

To score both safe and at-risk behaviors also provides an opportunity for employees to recognize safe behavior when it occurs, or alternatively, correct at-risk behavior when it is observed. The process of immediate feedback can be a powerful safety improvement tool that is built right into your measurement system. Thus, you are evaluating your current levels of safety from an “elevated” baseline, but this is OK, because improvement is what we’re after. So, we shouldn’t be concerned that the measurement system itself will work for us this way.

A space for comments is valuable because “recurring themes” can shed light on problems that can be resolved or may even point you in the direction of an appropriate intervention. For example, if an “at-risk” observation for proper tools and equipment use is accompanied by comments indicating that “the proper tool was not available,” one could look into re-distributing existing resources so that the tools are available where they’re needed. This type of action will enable the safe alternative. Any further evidence of problems in this area would suggest a motivation problem that could then be addressed with a fundamental understanding of how to effectively motivate employees (a topic for a future newsletter).

It is important to include a date on your CBC so you can track changes in behavior over time. After all, another major benefit to collecting data on safety-related behaviors is to know if your improvement strategies are creating the changes you seek. Otherwise, you can try something else to get that improvement. In other words, you don’t have to wait until an incident occurs to make adjustments that could have been made much earlier. This is, indeed, the definition of being proactive.

Finally, it is important to note that in most cases, CBCs DO NOT contain a space for the name of the people being observed. The tendency, when this information is collected, is to start pointing fingers. In behavior-based safety, we don’t want to fault find. We want to fact find. So, names are not important. We are interested in all factors that contribute safe versus at-risk behaviors and situations so we can make the necessary adjustments to prevent the event from happening again, regardless of the employees involved. Thus, behavior-based safety must be thought of as a systems approach to safety improvement.

Aside from the practical measurement oriented reasons for making behavioral observations, the CBC serves another important function. It serves to increase safety awareness among employees and stimulate conversations about safety. When we concentrate our efforts on day-to-day safety activities, we create a work environment in which safety becomes more important. Ironically, it becomes more important as a result of us talking more about it. And, we talk more about it because it has become more important. Thus, a major benefit of your employee-driven observation and feedback process will be to communicate the importance of safety more effectively by walking the talk. That is, what is often discussed in the board room, but lost in translation on front-lines, is now communicated visibly to the employees. This will go along way in showing your employees that you care. As a result, they will care more about themselves, each other, and their work.

Next month, I’ll introduce a model for understanding human motivation from the perspective of behavioral science. In the meantime, we welcome your feedback and suggestions for other topics of interest to include in our newsletter. Please click on the comments button below to post your comment or question or e-mail us directly at ted.boyce@cbsafety.com for more information. I’d be happy to send you copies of observation cards used in various industries. Until next time, pinpoint and define on-going safety behaviors that can be measured. Then, design a simple observation card around these issues using the characteristics described here. Next, have your employees test it out and give you feedback. Finally, revise accordingly. This will be a big first step in “cultivating the human side of safety” at your facility.

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