What works better in a behavior-based safety process — voluntary or mandatory participation as an observer?

This is often a controversial topic. Many people in both management and safety believe participation in safety improvement efforts, including observations, should be required of all employees.

Let’s examine the two options in greater detail. Both have their challenges.

Volunteers, anyone?

Make participation in an observation process voluntary, and your steering committee will struggle with encouraging and reinforcing participation. It will be a never-ending task that never gets easier.

Sustaining participation will take concerted effort for as long as your observation process remains in place. Typically, participation starts at a base rate of 20-40 percent and with an aggressive steering committee it increases to 60-80 percent of all employees conducting observations.

In our experience, these employees participate in the process because they want to, and they generally turn in quality observations. Plus, these observers are more likely to take the time to provide quality feedback to the coworkers they observed.

The real challenge taking the voluntary route is continually developing meaningful forms of individual recognition and arranging celebrations of team successes. The longer an observation process is in place, the more difficult it is to keep recognition meaningful to individual employees. Successful recognition requires steering committee members to know the likes and dislikes of individual coworkers, and this too takes a great deal of effort.

Everyone’s doing it

On the other hand, if conducting observations is mandatory, your steering committee will struggle with the quality issue. More employees will simply “pencil whip” the observation forms and turn them in just to meet the requirement.

The longer this kind of process is in place, the more “pencil whipping” you can expect. It makes little difference to employees whether they do observations right or simply turn in the completed checklist.

What a waste.

What do we mean? When quality concerns are raised, steering committee members must conduct observations alongside coworkers who seem to have accuracy problems. This can lead to committee burnout.

Second, the organization has the added administrative burden associated with having to enter “corrupt” data from poor quality observations.

Third, the steering committee must now sift through this “polluted” data. They have much more work to do to get to the meaningful stuff.

All in all, a mandated observation process can create a paper chase that doesn’t add enough value to generate good support.

Measure of complacency

In truth, both a voluntary approach to conducting safety observations and its mandatory alternative face some of the same challenges. A steering committee overseeing voluntary participation can’t ignore the issue of quality observations. Likewise, a steering committee in the mandatory mode must address employees who still do not conduct observations.

But we think the steering committee in the voluntary process has the easier job. It is set up to create a positive workplace by arranging recognition and celebrations. More important, an organization with a voluntary process has an effective measure of complacency.

Think about it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an instrument that told you when your employees were growing complacent about safety? The good news is that many of you with a behavior-based safety process have a complacency meter. That is, those of you with a voluntary process have such a metric.

Here’s how the meter works. In the early stages of a voluntary observation process, the percentage of employees participating is a great measure of the employees’ acceptance of the process. Later on, it becomes an operational measure of complacency. When employees become complacent about safety, they usually stop participating in safety observations.

Using the percentage of participation as a metric of complacency is effective at both the organization and subgroup level. In truth, declines in participation might signal other problems. Employees might stop participating if they are angry with their supervisor or for other reasons. Whatever, this drop in volunteerism is a red flag, one that warrants special attention because the risk of injury has gone up.

That’s the point of having a complacency index. It directs your prevention efforts before an injury occurs. But you only have such an index in a voluntary process.