Essentials in Observation and Safety

Originally posted on May 9, 2014 @ 8:25 AM

safety hazardsI visited a major construction site a few weeks ago. They did their best to impress us with their 4 hour induction, extremely comprehensive work method statements and permit systems, safety management plans, contractor management systems, pretty graphs, regular audit schedules, tool box talks etc etc, All very impressive, but…… we followed the Safety Officer around the site as he stepped over and around an array of trip hazards, uneven surfaces and protrusions. You could cut the tension between “us and them” with a knife. They had obviously taken their eye off the ball. There were way too many basic physical and human problems immediately obvious to our “fresh eyes” and this does not build a stable foundation for safety success.

This then was a very timely article by Dr Rob Long and I will include some of his advice in my site recommendations.

Essentials in Observation and Safety

By Dr Robert Long

Being observant is essential for safety, not in a BBS sense as a programmed activity or, in an unnatural sense as ‘spying’ but rather in just becoming more skilled in what to look and listen for in safety. It is so easy to block out so many things to our senses that we can simply walk about not see hazards and risks. With so much emphasis on legislation, regulation and engineering in safety, many walk on site and don’t really know what to look and listen for practically. When I survey the training in WHS that is available at Cert IV and Diploma level I am amazed at what is not considered essential in safety. So many human skills required to be an effective safety officer are just not in there. The latest text (publish date 2014) I purchased doesn’t have the words ‘observation’, ‘learning’, ‘psychology’, ‘social’ or ‘people’ in it. It does however have all the tired and out-dated models of Swiss chess, nomogram tie lines, matrices and Heinrich’s pyramid and one third of the text devoted to legislation but, no attention given to how to engage others, observe and be a practical safety person on site. It is not until you get to page 201 of this text before the idea of consultation is mentioned and even then it is a mechanical process and no mention is made of people, just a chronicle of what the law says. No mention in the book of perception, motivation, bias, subjectivity or humanizing the workplace, no wonder people come out of such training and don’t know what to do. One could read this text from cover to cover and be forgiven for thinking that humans don’t work in workplaces.

We live in such an overloaded environment with so much data bombarding us that we are becoming more and more skilled at shutting out information than ever before. The only way to cope in our busy city these days is not to pay attention to all the signage. These days we learn to ‘filter out’ a great deal of information as a coping mechanism for survival. We receive way too many emails, spam and junk mail, everyone is trying to ‘sell’ to us something through every medium they can. We now have 10-15 ads every break in a TV show, we are bombarded by social media and internet-based forms of attention seeking. People walk down the street shutting out the whole world as they walk and SMS with their attention in their small world in their iPhone. We have devices with so much complexity, even fridges that think and appliances with video cameras. CCTV is on us everywhere we go and the general flood of information is so overwhelming that psychologists have listed dozens of adjustment disorders in the DSMV 5.

I met a safety person recently who had been a Safety Manager (I think he was called a Zero Harm (sic) Manager) who had never walked through his site nor spoken to a worker in their location for 3 years. Everyone had to come to his office.

However, in the light of all this flooding, this sense of being overwhelmed and the absurd nonsense of absolutes there are a few simple things safety people can focus on to become better observers on site, these are:

1. Get out on site, walk the site and talk with people, not at people.

2. Get to know people and their interests, what makes them tick, share social interests.

3. Identify your assumptions and biases eg. cultural bias such as dealing with intergenerational differences.

4. Don’t go out with an agenda and don’t go out if you are in a negative mood and busy.

5. Learn to ‘tune out’ of your own pressures and troubles and focus on ‘the other’.

6. Participate if you can in some of the work so you understand process and flow and can differentiate changes.

7. Learn how to ask open questions and strings of open questions. Socratic question skills ought to be foundational to all safety training.

8. Focus on ‘listening’ rather than ‘telling’ by suspending your own agenda and focusing on ‘the other’.

9. Make sure your questions don’t ‘interrogate’ the other.

10. Learn to be tactically silent, you don’t have to tell people about safety or what they are doing wrong.

11. Learn the names of people and engage people for who they are, not for how they can be used or by their importance in status or role.

12. Take a particular interest in those most neglected by the system: cleaners, assistants down the chain and part time staff.

13. Ask others to talk about the nature of their work, flow, process and what they would improve if they could.

14. Focus on dialogue, their story and their view of their work.

15. Take note of little things without judgment: dress, habits, colours, use of space, symbols, artefacts about, social indicators, eating areas, parking bay etc.

16. Develop an interest in people skills, perhaps read Robert Bolton’s book People Skills or Karen Gately’s book The People Managers Toolkit.

17. Develop trust in a confidential friend who you can reflect with about perceptions of people and misperceptions.

18. Understand what is normal in patterns of work and where people have become desensitized to risk.

19. Look for correlations or anomalies in work process and any turbulence that could misdirect others.

These are just a start but should help you be on your way as a safety person on site.

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