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Leverage all your safety experts

A blended approach to safety assessments

November 1, 2012
Since I work for a well-established leader in online training and EHS software solutions, I am often asked if I believe online training can “replace” all instructor-led training. My answer is an unequivocal “no.” Online training is just one tool in the “blended approach” that constitutes today’s best practices.

Recognizing that different types of training all have benefits and limitations, a blended approach taps the complementary strengths of multiple tactics. Take forklift training, for example. OSHA requires knowledge training on concepts like stability and center-of-gravity. Compared to instructor-led classrooms, good online training can often convey that knowledge more effectively, efficiently and consistently, with unmatched scheduling flexibility. However, OSHA also requires hands-on training with the equipment — here an instructor is essential. In fact, one benefit of the blended approach is that time saved by using online training where it works best gives instructors more time to do exercises, coaching and other tasks they do best.

A blended approach is also beneficial in other areas of safety, including assessments. While every company does assessments, some rely almost solely on periodic formal assessments by outside consultants or a corporate EHS group. Such assessments are very important — but if you rely on those alone, you risk creating a culture of “managing to the assessment.” The focus turns toward “winning” assessor approval through last-minute preparation “blitzes” rather than continually improving and sustaining safety. Knowing an assessment is in progress, employees may take precautions they sometimes skip or “hide” known risks. Plus, even the most diligent assessment experts can only provide a snapshot in time. Warning signs that happen outside that snapshot may go unnoticed until the next assessment period — which might be too late.

A blended approach to safety assessments eliminates those gaps by engaging frontline employees as well as safety professionals, using both formal and informal methods, and ensuring ongoing collection of relevant data. With that in mind, let’s review the complementary strengths of formal and informal assessment processes — then look at how to get your “informal” safety experts more involved.

Strengths of formal assessments performed by dedicated safety professionals

To start with the obvious, the expertise of safety professionals is irreplaceable when it comes to identifying known hazards, understanding the details of regulatory demands, and staying up to date with the best safety and risk management approaches. Whereas frontline employees can become desensitized to certain risks, and may have operational pressures or workplace relationships that skew their perceptions or behaviors with regard to safety, formal assessments ensure a thorough, objective evaluation.

Similarly, the methodical, detailed approach of a formal assessment, combined with the fact that the professionals performing the assessment are 100-percent focused on safety issues, provides highly reliable data to drive decision-making. You also get analytic depth — safety professionals won’t just notice surface-level deficiencies, they’ll uncover the root causes behind
deficiencies.

Formal assessment reports are also extremely valuable in terms of documentation — to support compliance efforts, mitigate liability exposure and inform stakeholders throughout the organization.

Finally, because formal assessments are done by those “outside” operational processes, they can be performed with minimal loss of productivity. You don’t want your frontline employees spending all their time studying regulations and writing reports!

Strengths of informal assessments performed by frontline employees

As mentioned earlier, a limitation of formal assessments is that they only capture one place and time. For a more complete picture, you need your frontline employees to be “assessing” whenever and wherever work occurs. This can be fairly informal — simply having them record short observations of near misses, potential hazards, improvement opportunities, and so on. This data supplements findings from formal assessments. Backshifts, seldom-performed tasks, and environmental changes that fall outside a formal assessment are now covered. With hundreds of eyes constantly monitoring safety, you greatly reduce the odds that anything will be missed or get hidden.

Just as safety professionals are the undisputed experts in safety regulations and practices, it’s important to remember that frontline employees are the real experts in your specific operations. No one can compete with their day-to-day perspective and understanding of equipment, processes, co-worker practices, and environmental factors. This is a different kind of “safety expertise” — but just as important in the big picture. 

Additionally, getting frontline employees more involved in safety observations and recommendations makes it easier to gain buy-in for corrective actions. If you rely only on “outside” assessments and suggestions, it will be harder to gain grassroots acceptance for changes.

One more argument for getting employees involved in assessments is logistical. Bolstering safety by adding more frequent formal assessments incurs additional costs and may create distractions. Enabling frontline employees to make in-the-moment safety observations can involve little or no workflow interruption — and they’re already on the payroll!

Implementing a blended approach: Building a culture of early reporting

The blended approach to assessment catches more potential problems earlier so they can be corrected before they lead to costly incidents. Increased vigilance also tends to turn up valuable suggestions to improve efficiency, productivity, quality and other business performance areas. But to get good, actionable data from frontline “safety experts,” you must first implement processes that support early reporting and establish the assumption that everyone should watch for hazards and suggest improvements all the time. To achieve this, an organization must proactively address several key areas:

Fear of negative repercussions. Employees understandably perceive early reporting as risky. They may fear that reporting will reflect poorly on job performance or damage work relationships. It must be clear that the goal is to correct problems and ensure safety, not punish individuals.

Follow-up. Employees will not make the extra effort to report problems unless they observe that it leads to improvements. Not every suggestion can be acted upon, but it helps to have a system in place that acknowledges and positively reinforces employee reporting.

Training and guidelines. Particularly if employees have not previously been deeply involved in safety efforts, training and guidelines may be needed to support hazard recognition, convey the importance of early reporting and limiting incident severity, etc.

Part of the job. Early reporting shouldn’t be seen as “voluntary” but as a natural part of every job description. In addition to encouraging early reporting, it should be clear that not reporting near misses or unsafe conditions is unacceptable.

Organizational priority. Employees sometimes perceive observation programs as a time-consuming “extra” task. In many cases, this can be traced to more widespread organizational attitudes such as prioritizing speed over safety. From the top down, it must be understood that reporting things that could prevent seven-figure incident losses or devastating injuries is always worth the time.

Infrastructure and processes. If you want employees to feel empowered rather than burdened by their role as assessors, shore up your safety management system to make reporting convenient, enable quick analysis of observations and conversion into corrective action, and ensure clear communication between all stakeholders. Powerful, enterprise-wide EHS/OHS management systems can be especially beneficial in this regard.

Obviously, some variables about assessments depend on your specific company or situation. But a blended approach to assessments that involves outside safety experts and frontline employees is really a “must” in terms of maximizing safety. That approach has already proven its worth at today’s top-performing programs. And it’s the right mindset for any organization that wants to protect its people and its profits in the 21st century.