The Value of Safety Observations, Especially Safe Observations

13 July 2012

The safety profession has an unhealthy fixation on measuring purely using negative values. OSHA recordable and lost time injuries first spring to mind – both lagging, and I would suggest negative, indicators. Once they occur, there is nothing that can be done but to investigate and hopefully learn enough to avoid similar incidents in the future. But even these metrics are flawed in that a lack of injuries or incidents does not necessarily equate to a safe workplace. It could be a simple matter of being lucky. I will offer an example:

Two drivers are tasked with making a delivery. One drives recklessly, regularly exceeds the speed limit, and generally operates with tremendous risk. This driver arrives well ahead of the deadline and is rewarded both for increased productivity as well as being safe since no incidents were sustained. The second driver follows all of the rules and regulations set by the company and the traffic jurisdiction in the travel zone. This driver is cautious, drives defensively, and ensures both he and those around him are kept from harm to the extent of controlling those things he can control. He arrives promptly but well after the first driver. His supervisor, in a passing remark, tells the second driver he should be more like the first driver. As this continues, how do you believe the drivers will begin to respond?

Realizing that simply measuring lagging data in the form of incidents and injuries isn’t enough, many companies have begun to adopt leading indicators or indicators that show conditions, behaviors, or activities that show how the safety process is actually working. The most common indicators are near miss reports and worksite observations. Near misses, however, are simply incidents that did not reach their full potential. I will offer another example:

Two workers, both working from a ladder, overextend themselves and fall. One worker breaks several bones and suffers a significant injury that keeps him from work for months. The other worker simply stands up, dusts himself off, and walks away with no injury at all.

The only difference is the unpredictable outcome yet we use this as an evaluation tool constantly! In this example, what were consistent were the leading indicators prior to the event that could have been both observed and influenced proactively.

Going further up the leading chain are the observable inputs such as the behaviors, conditions, and activities expected from a mature and effective safety process. However, many organizations squander and even misuse this data when they rely too much on unsafe observations, typically collected through safety inspections or through behavior-based systems. Measuring failures only is inherently flawed. Let me give you an example:

Your safety observation process only collects unsafe observations. You dig into your data over the past week and discover one crew observed has five unsafe observations in ladder use and another crew has zero unsafe observations in ladder use. Assuming both did similar work, which one was safer? Your first inclination is to claim the crew with zero unsafe observations. However, there is a HUGE assumption made if that is the case. That assumption is that they were observed. Absence of unsafe observations could just as easily be attributed to not looking at them at all! OSHA has a philosophy: “If it is not documented, it didn’t happen”. Safe observations then serve to show proof that something did take place. We have traditionally found that there are many more safe observations than unsafe observations with a common ratio of 36:1*.

Besides the obvious advantage of recording who was observed, what was observed and the location observed, safe observations also provide you with more advantages as well.

  • By using representative sampling, collecting safe and unsafe observations can provide you with a ratio of safe vs. unsafe. For example, would you be more concerned about a ratio of 50% unsafe in electrical or 2% unsafe in electrical?
  • By actually counting a representative amount of safety observations and not just checking a box for the entire project, you can determine the context of your findings as well. For example, you find three unsafe observations for failure to use safety glasses. Now, if there were only three workers observed, then this is significant. If there were 300 other workers who were wearing safety glasses, then the gravity of the findings is diminished, allowing you to focus on more severe findings.
  • Safe observations allow positive feedback to be employed. The idea is to coach to improve and move away from the safety “cop” mentality of busting workers for safety violations
  • Only through safe observations can you measure improvement. Let’s say you found a lot of unsafe observations for a certain hazard and implemented an action plan to address it. How would you know it got better? Keep in mind that an absence of unsafe observations could mean nobody is looking! An improved ratio of safe vs. unsafe should support an improvement in the targeted, specific safety process you were concerned about.

Keep in mind that an absence in injuries does not necessarily equate to a safe worksite, as presented in the examples above. So are you ready to determine if you lucky or are you good? By documenting both safe and unsafe observations, you can now actually measure “what is safe”.


* Sample size = 123,612,674 total observations


Cary Usrey

Cary Usrey has been at Predictive Solutions since March 2007. As a Process Improvement Leader, Cary is responsible for implementing best practices for customers seeking to prevent worker injuries. He coaches customers through an assessment, goal-setting, and goal measurement process that is designed to maximize safety improvement and widespread organizational engagement, from the field to leadership. Cary started his career in the U.S. Navy's Nuclear Power Program. After leaving the Navy, he served as the Environmental, Health and Safety Compliance Director at Adirondack Resource Recovery Associates, a waste-to-energy power plant in upstate New York, where he was employed for over twelve years. Following this, Cary took a position with Turner Construction, where he served as the Business Unit Safety Director for the upstate New York office for approximately three years. Cary has graduated with his Associate's Degree in Occupational Safety and Health from Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, is a member of the Central FL chapter of the ASSE, and has served on the Board of Directors for the VPPPA (Region II).

  • Tony ODea

    I agree, the absence of injuries does not indicate conclusive the presence of safety.
    In addition, positive recognition is a powerful motivator. We tend to repaet those things that we are praised and recognized for (works with my wife and I also). ackowledging a contractors ‘safes’ encourages a contractor foreman or project team to continue their safety efforts and such positive ackowledgement propels them to renewed action, i’ve found. But, as with pizza, poker, or safe observations, ‘all things in moderation’.

  • Fredrick Mayo

    The concept of mearuing both the desired safe behaviors and the undesired safe behaviors is some 15 years old now. The experience of seeing a program that could provide valuable insight into a trend of potential unacceptable risk turn into a numbers game by management is quickly seen by the hands on people in the field. Resulting in their lack of participation. When workers in the field are trained on this type of observation program and the data analyzed then acted upon, you will have something worthwhile. The worker will support the program and feel they have contributed to a safe workplace.
    If the Safety Professional intervenes and corrects unsafe behaviors without publicly achknowledging the safe behavior observed by the same worker, all the worker will remember is the “negative” aspect of the intervention. Sometimes a simple “thumbs up” sticker is all that is needed to help someone remember the desired safe behavior that was reinforced and most likely be repeated. It is also something that can be used as a badge of honor (who has the most thumbs up from the “safety man”).
    Follow up in the form of behavioral analysis is required unless all that is desired is having a number, point at it and tell all that “We’re headed for disaster.” Analysis provides the “root cause” and a solid knowledge that can be acted upon.
    Behavior Observation is a system made up of more components than just collecting numbers.

  • Tony,

    Great feedback.

    I agree with your statement – all things in moderation. It is not necessary to document everything but it is important to try to be representative.


  • Fred,

    Thank you for the valuable feedback.

    Safe and unsafe observations have indeed been around for some time, however, I see enough variablity across companies and indistries that I felt compelled to discuss the advantages of doing it and doing it right. There are still a great number of companies that feel content collecting NO safe observations as well.

    I do see safe observations used more for behavioral programs, however, this practice can be used for Leadership Audits and condition-based safety observations as well.

    You are spot on that a robust safety process is necessary in order to avoid the data being used incorrectly or perceived to be bad. In addition, we have also seen in our studies that observations without action do little to drive safety improvements.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it is so much more than collecting numbers.

    Thanks again for your contribution.

  • Jeff Howell

    Great observation! We seem to be experts at measuring and evaluating the past which tends to strongly support a “reactive” attitude instead of a “proactive” thought process.
    I will keep your article and reference it again.

    Thank you.

    Jeff Howell
    Operations Manager
    Morgan Corp.

  • Jeff,

    Thank you for the feedback. Let me know if any of the other articles appeal to you as well.

    If you have any ideas on further blog posts, I would love to hear from you.



  • Weston


    Great article. Very informative. I dream of a day when my organization will embrace safety observations from the positive perspective as you have rightly pointed out. I for one are already putting in place a system that fosters this approach in my section.

    I will certainly use this article to argue my case for a combination of desired and undesired safety observation as one of the ways of managing safety issues.


  • Weston,

    Great feedback – thank you.

    Let me know how it progresses and let me know how it is recevied. I would be interested in the responses.

  • Cary,
    Great, informative article. Some years ago I worked for a large sub-contracting company. The client company had an existing Behavioral Based observation system and we had our own (ours was similar to the STOP card system). The information gained was useful (+ve & -ve observations) if a little sparse.
    As the project ramped up, we put in a minimum quota for observations (initially 1 per employee per shift, increasing to 3 per employee per shift). To begin with, I was against the quota idea. As the flood of cards came in, I changed my tune! The volume of info was enormous! When broken down, the data gave us valuable leading & lagging indications.
    With a varied work scope it was difficult to get trends in the short term, but monthly stats worked against incident reports (we reported EVERYTHING!) told us a lot of interesting things that we could act upon (often saving us coming up with subject material for pre-shift and safety meetings).
    There were, of course some “dud” observations – These were reduced by implementing an incentive scheme for “Card of the Day/Hitch/Month”.
    Overall, the system worked well once the crews had bought into the system and seen the value of reporting +ve AND -ve situations. The figures backed-up the process – Even with a very high level of reporting, our incident rates were well below industry averages.
    Why did we get such good buy-in from the crews? The process was driven by all levels of management, HSE supervision and championed by the Health & Safety Reps.
    I hope this may serve as inspiration and encouragement to others.
    Pat Barnes

  • Pat,

    Great feedback, thank you.

    I would like to touch on a few items you mentioned. The first item you mentioned was getting everyone on board collecting data. Our research, as seen in our white paper, shows that involvement by the ‘many’ is what is necessary to manage risk on a project. The more eyes on the hazards along with the ownership of the safety process goes a long way to avoid incidents. The second item you mentioned involves the quality of data submitted. I advocate using metrics to determine what a quality inspection (collection of observations) looks like. From that, you can then pinpoint the ‘duds’ and then coach the individuals to improve. It is typically a cultural barrier that must be identified – either with the company or the individual – that must be addressed before better data is seen.

    Thank you again for your great story.

  • Victor S Kelly Jr

    I agree with Tony on the moderation of all thing good and bad. I also believe that the praise needs to be seen by others to encourage their involvememnt in the process. There have been many a manager that have be recognized infront of collogues yet with lower tier employees this may not always be true. We have tried to take great pride in the recognition of those at all levels and make these actions know to all. We have a phrase that we encourage all employees to remember ” You don’t have to be the safety guy to know safety”

  • Victor,

    Thank you for taking the time to provide feedback.

    I agree wholeheartedly that all employees – top to bottom – should be recognized for the work that they do. It doesn’t have to be an incentive program with monetary rewards but a pat on the back or a work of encouragement or a letter from the boss or recognition in a company meeting or newsletter is very motivating.

    People want to know what they are doing makes a difference.

  • theintelligentone

    This is a great article, I’m glad I came across it the ideas and solutions here will help me immensely.