Sadly, I preface this month’s column with word that Dan Petersen passed on January 10, 2007. Rare is a true giant in a field. That’s what Dan was to safety. A compassionate man with class, Dan started in safety full-time in 1954. For the next 53 years he prodded the field to raise its level of professionalism with unmatched vigor. In books, articles, speeches and teaching he pressed the need for research, a sense of history, clear thinking, open-mindedness, and accountability. Dan never stopped learning, never stopped pursuing the goal of organizational safety excellence. Dan leaves a huge legacy, and he’ll be very much missed. — Dave Johnson, Editor

There has been much talk about employee empowerment in safety circles in recent years. But let’s face it, many organizations are not prepared to truly delegate or share safety decision-making power with the rank and file. But you do have an alternative.

Go out and get input on safety issues from employees before management makes its decisions. There are many ways you can tap employees for ideas.

You can make use of safety improvement teams, job safety analyses, and “hazard hunt” forms where employees jot down anything they feel is a hazard and return it for follow-up review and possible corrective action if necessary. Close the loop by getting back to the reporting employee to tell him or her what action has been take.

The incident recall technique

A seldom-used tool to elicit employee input is the incident recall technique (IRT). It has the promise of unearthing more accident triggers than most employee involvement techniques, and it finds these hazards before they lead to serious injury.

The IRT involves interviewing employees in a non-threatening, totally confidential manner to put them at ease in recalling past safety-related incidents. The success of the IRT, in terms of the number of incidents revealed, depends on the level of trust and credibility you bring to the interview, and your skill as a conversationalist.

Before you start asking questions, reiterate that all responses are totally confidential. Explain how using the IRT to uncover safety problems benefits not only the employee — but the employee’s family, department, coworkers and the company as a whole.

Show and explain the form you’ll use to take notes during your interview. Then simply lean back and ask the employee to recall each near-miss accident that he or she has seen or heard about on the job. Be sure to nail down how many times he or she has seen or heard of it happening. Make note of all details essential to the incident.

Turn off the bright lights

Don’t allow gaps in the stories you hear. Ask questions to fill in the specifics. Remember, this is not an interrogation. Don’t make the employee feel he or she is under the hot lights. Avoid interrupting the flow of their answers.

Be sure to confirm your understanding of the story or incident relayed to you. Repeat it to the employee to make sure you’ve got it right.

Now switch from your questioning mode and enter into a discussion about the causes of the incident, and possible remedies. Make it clear you want and need his or her help.

So what do you come away with after an incident recall session? First, by focusing on accidents that almost happened but didn’t, you might be able to prevent whatever type of accident was described to you from occurring. Second, you’ve activated the employee’s interest in safety by asking for and carefully listening to his story.

Through the incident recall technique’s conversational style, you’re likely to obtain more information on current accidents waiting to happen than you would get through more formal and bureaucratic reporting schemes. And you’ve demonstrated by taking the time to engage the employee in a confidential one-to-one conversation that you sincerely care about his or her safety. Finally, the IRT can help you check your safety audit findings and provide you with additional input for your safety training sessions.