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Making Behavioral Observations Work

Behavioral Observations are, in fact, a key to a safe work environment. But, let’s start at the beginning.

A behavior-based approach to safety and safety training is almost universally considered, and rightly so, to be the best way to improve safety. Behavioral Observations – where an employee, designated or not, observes another employee doing the job and records both safe and at-risk behaviors – are a key part of any behavior-based approach to safety and safety training.

Unfortunately, most organizations do not adequately understand how Behavioral Observations work or what they do relative to the overall behavior-based approach to safety. Typically, the safety improvement plan is often based upon doing a bunch of Behavioral Observations of safe and unsafe acts. Once we have those observations, we then:

  • Reward good behavior. Don’t get us wrong; rewarding good, safety behavior is the right thing to do. We’ll get to that in just a bit.
  • Use the observation of unsafe acts as the basis of our approach to safety training. We point out what people did wrong, scold them for being that stupid (in a nice way of course) and assume that a big whip will drive the unsafe demons out of their body.

As a result, employees frequently (and rightly) come to regard the safety observations as punitive, and they then avoid doing them correctly, consistently, thoroughly or at all. In an ironic twist, they “protect” one another from the backlash of the safety observation process, which in the long run puts everyone more at-risk for future injury. Instead of teaching people to stay safe, we wind up unintentionally teaching people not to report and not to get caught when they perform an un-safe behavior (neither of which is a lesson we want to teach).


Behavioral Observations are a key to a safe work environment. So how do we structure these so that employees see them as beneficial, they actually perform them, and our organization benefits from the information that they provide?

For Behavioral Observations to be successful they must be used within the context of Mind-set Change. As noted in another article (Want to Change the Culture? Focus on Changing the Mind-Set), an Absolute Safety, 365 culture is dependent on a changed mind-set. In order to achieve this mind-set change, the entire organization must engage in a series of Thinking-Talking-Doing steps.

In that article, we suggest as part of the DOING stage employees “Identifying proper, safe behavior and rewarding it” and “Identifying unsafe behavior and eliminating it.” Note that these actions are, in fact, Behavioral Observations.

Once the Mind-set of Absolute Safety, 365 is realized, in the DOING stage, the observations become informational, not punitive, in nature. If a person truly has an Absolute Safety, 365 Mind-set and engages in at-risk behavior, he or she truly wants to know about it! Why? Because he or she believes that an at-risk behavior is not acceptable. When a person truly has this Mind-set and engages in safe behavior, he or she truly needs to know about it! Why? Because he or she needs confirmation that safe behavior is the way of life.

In addition if a person engages in safe behavior and does not know it is safe, he or she may change the behavior to one that is unsafe. Pointing out safe behavior IS NOT FLUFF! It is a critical part of an Absolute Safety, 365 culture.

5 Keys to Make Behavioral Observations Work

1) Make them part of a safety conversation

Safety observations should not be the responsibility of “the safety committee” or another select few who sneak in, look over shoulders, jot down notes and then leave. This promotes the “Us/Them” mentality and the perception that someone is snitching on us or that, even worse, Big Brother is watching.

In an Absolute Safety, 365 culture, safety observations are not “add-ons” to our work, they are part and parcel of our work. Everyone is looking for both Safe and At-Risk behaviors. When either is observed, the observer – whether boss, peer or subordinate – has a conversation with the employee. This conversation is structured to recognize and lift up safe behaviors, as well as recognizing at-risk behaviors; then the observer helps the employee to consider and choose other ways to get the job done correctly and safely. These conversations are short, positive, professional and pervasive. They reinforce the correct perception that we are all looking out for one another and challenge the negative perception usually attached to safety observations.

2) Tie safety measurement to specific behaviors

If we are going to have an Absolute Safety, 365 culture, then our systems must be geared towards that goal. Each of the measures we use to see if we are successful must measure the way we serve and support each other to create a culture of safety. This does not mean that we should stop measuring costs and expenses. It means that we unwaveringly focus on safety, and we observe, track and measure key behaviors that determine success. Typically, behavioral observations look for specific safe or at-risk behaviors (for example, the employee is/is not wearing appropriate PPE; is/is not performing a lock-out/tag-out; is/is not lifting in an ergonomically correct manner; etc.), but they should also include the number, degree and quality of the safety conversations, near-hit (there is no such thing as a “near miss”) reports, JSA's, pre-shift safety briefings, etc. These additional behaviors support the establishment and maintenance of the Absolute Safety, 365 culture

3) Wherever possible, link safety to other initiatives

Safety does not operate in a vacuum. If Absolute Safety, 365 is not a part of day-to-day operations and procedures, it will die (not MIGHT die, WILL die). One way to build Absolute Safety, 365 into daily operations is to consciously make it a part of the other initiatives.

For example, one of our Tactical Tools is Plan Implementation Analysis. This is a tool to protect something as complex as a major project or as simple as a planned change. Below are the last 4 columns from a Plan Implementation Analysis Worksheet:

Plan Implementation Analysis Worksheet (Partial)
Possible Effect Back-up Action Clear Signal Job Safety Analysis
Do this column fifth
Do this column sixth
Do this column seventh
Do this column at any time, do it often

Notice the far right column. JSA is an integral part of Plan Implementation Analysis!

4) Tie safety incentives to overall organizational safety improvement

Safety incentives should be associated with the organization as a whole. Not with a person. Not with a department. Not with an operating area. With the whole organization.

Safety is not a competition. Absolute Safety, 365 is a way of life. When safety is measured and published by department, the focus on organizational safety is lost, and there is a de-facto competition in place. This creates the “my shop is safer than your shop” mentality. What we want is “our organization is a safe place to work” mentality.

The best rewards for safety are company-wide. In one organization with which we worked, the reward for 3 safe years was the organization donating a new children’s wing to the local hospital. There was virtually universal pride within that work force for that accomplishment and increased attention to and pride in creating an Absolute Safety, 365 workplace.

5) Make it anonymous

Although it may be tempting to track the identities of those who do/don’t choose at-risk behaviors, without anonymity employees will fail to buy into safety observations, conversations and reporting out of fear of retribution.


Absolute Safety, 365 requires that all members of the organization think and work as a team and that safety is seen as integral to the job. Behavioral observations are an important tool in the total safety effort. Incorporate the ideas listed above so that this tool doesn’t go to waste.

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