Safety Observation Programs: How to Drive Insight from Observations

Feb 27th, 2013 | By | Category: Health and Safety

Yellow Cards. HazObs, HazIDs, STOPTM  cards. These are names for programs that are meant to engage employees to improve safety performance.  The ‘cards’ typically have written guidance for employees to use to target safety observations.  The intent of these cards is to have employees focus on potential hazards in their workplace and identify those hazards. Sometimes, they are also used to document strong safety performance.

  • People in the wrong position? Check.
  • Personal Protective Equipment used properly? Check.
  • Safety guards in place and functional? Check.
  • Observing an employee walking within the yellow lines in a factory? Check Plus!

The card programs are widely seen in industry.  Plastics plants, steel mills, food plants, railways, refineries, oil platforms. You name it, they are there.  Typically what happens is the local management needs to improve safety performance and they create an observation program. They engage leaders and employees in the effort to make the work place safer.

Card collection boxes are posted, cards issued, training conducted, and the program goes live.  Cards are collected.

Eventually, management is disappointed in the low response from hourly employees.  The inevitable brainstorming ensues on how to generate more cards.  Then a quota system gets suggested. The quota system signals the beginning of the end.  The next message to the employees goes something like this; “Thou shalt issue five cards per day per person, and they shall be good.”

Speaking with a group of young LNG plant operators in Russia, they experienced that exact scenario. They became skeptical of the program.  They had bought into the process and understood the purpose.  But they resented the quota.  So what did they do? They wrote poor quality cards (I assure you, their language was a bit more colorful than what I wrote!). The program managers started to complain that the data was poor and the value of the program had declined. And the program was cancelled. It was then deemed a failure for the safety team.

Yet, on an offshore platform in the Gulf of Guinea, a similar program was alive, well and contributing to improved safety and operational performance. Every single day.


A Better Way

In the Gulf of Guinea, card collection boxes are posted, cards issued, training conducted, and the program goes live.  Cards are collected.  Contrary to the Russian example, local management is thrilled with an insightful response from hourly employees. At this platform, the management team decided to do something different. They refused to implement a quota system.  Instead, the leaders took the program seriously.

Each morning, cards from the prior 24 hours were collected and reviewed at the morning production meeting.  Cards were discussed and action was either taken, or not.  Employees who contributed cards were not only thanked, but told of the disposition of their ideas.  Some suggestions were implemented, while others were investigated. Other ideas were disposed of, but none were ignored.

The next morning, actions were tracked, and the team knew the status of the selected items.  If employees weren’t at the meeting, the cards were posted in the employee lounge in a highly visible manner.

Each month, leaders would select a single idea to send to corporate headquarters. This submission would yield a thank you letter from the CEO to the employee and the platform.  There was neither cash nor prizes to award. The single signed letter sufficed.  The letter became a source of pride for the individual.  The results are impressive. Not only are the employees engaged and enthusiastic, the production platform is a zero incident facility.

The leadership team on the Gulf of Guinea platform understood how to drive employee behavior.  What was their secret?  If you’re going to ask employees to participate in a safety observation program, the real hard work is on the leaders.  They must set the tone for how the program will be viewed and commit to taking action.

Leaders reviewed the feedback and responded to every card.  They made inquiries when items were unclear. They didn’t relegate the cards to the safety department to tally information and build trend charts.  The leaders in the Gulf of Guinea took action. The leaders took the time to talk to their employees.

Leadership at this facility created a virtuous cycle in which employee engagement and participation created trust. The trust paved the way for more participation. Simply put, employees knew that management not only cared, but that they would act to improve safety performance.

Leaders made a ‘big deal’ out of successful suggestions. Leaders set the tone for what was expected and they aligned their words and actions to improve safety performance.

It’s not the cards that will make or break these programs. It’s the leadership.


Tips for Improving your Safety Observation Program

  • Review cards regularly and decide what you will (and won’t do) with them
  • Let employees know what (if anything) you will do with the cards and when
  • Ensure the actions are taken and tracked
  • Find ways to recognize contributions… it doesn’t have to be cash!

About the Author

Laurence Pearlman is a Director with Corven, Inc. in Lisle, Illinois, U.S.A. He advises energy and natural resource clients on safety performance improvement and change management. Laurence specializes in engaging employees and leaders to drive ownership and sustainability of safety processes. Previously, Laurence worked for Amoco, BP, Exxon, and Pfizer. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. He was part of the team that assessed the culture of BP Refining after the Texas City incident and identified leadership and cultural interventions to reduce risk. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa.


EHS Journal Articles by Laurence Pearlman


Photograph: Pencil by Jesper Noer, Kolding, Denmark.


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3 Comments to “Safety Observation Programs: How to Drive Insight from Observations”

  1. Cesar Freitas says:

    Laurence – Congratulations!!!

    Readers – This kind of tool it’s really usefull and powerfull to EH&S Management.

    Here in Brazil one item that made the diference in that tool was create an opportunity to solve a hazard quikly.

    We call “Immediate action”. In case the identification of a hazard as a PPE not used properly, the employee that did the observation could teach the coworker about how to use the PPE properly. Sometimes the immediate action could avoid an incident future. This case is usualy applied in “unsafe act” and rarely in “unsafe condition” and need to be an easy action, as an orientation.

    Cesar Freitas.
    EH&S Supply Chain – Brazil

  2. Ken Rogus says:

    Laurence and readers – I have been engaged in the safety arena for over 30 years. I have developed a “model” for exactly what you describe. I call it “Break the ICE”. ICE is an acronym for management response to safety.
    I is for involved, or talking about the importance of safety. Frankly, talk is cheap and gets little return in results.
    C is for committed, or taking action after discussing the safety challenges. You’re still at 50/50 on your return.
    E is for engagement ! The folks in the Gulf of Guinea talked, acted, but, also engaged the opportunity. I believe ENGAGING has for key elements: Alert, Aligned, Persistant, and Perseverence. These Engaging Elements were embraced by both the workers and the management team. This connection lead to their successful return on their investment of time and money.
    Ken Rogus, McDowell Safety & Health Services, Sanger, Texas Cell: 713-205-3513

  3. Absolutely agree with your main premise.

    In many workplaces individuals don’t receive feedback regarding their observations and the associated actions taken. As a result, these organisations suffer from what we call a ‘culture of compliance’, in which employees submit observations because they are required to do so, not because they are personally invested in the outcomes.

    We’ve found that replacing a card-based system with one that uses mobile apps completely changes this dynamic.

    Updates to observations are visible on mobile devices immediately. For example, when a supervisor takes action to close out an observation, this is clear to the individual who submitted it. As a result, individuals are more likely to value their contribution and submit quality observations. All members of a team are also automatically notified when a new observation has been made on their site. This keeps the team informed about the risks to which they may be exposed as they are identified.

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