It is hard to tell when observation processes first came on the scene. Maybe they came in back in the 1930s with H. W. Heinrich as he developed his ever so controversial injury pyramid. No matter which of these two topics is brought up with a safety crowd, the battle lines are drawn. Over the last five years or so, the debate about observation programs seems to have subsided. There was a period of time when national safety conferences would have a score or so of presentations on Behavior Based Safety (BBS) observation programs. These days, there will be maybe one such presentation. BBS has faded for a number of reasons.
Recently, I had a chance to talk to three well-respected safety professionals on a variety of topics and sure enough BBS came up. My first friend was ordered to use the program to ensure that upper management had visible involvement in safety. The data cards and the contact information were all of little or no real use, and went into the proverbial round file. All that really mattered with this level two approach was that a manager had been visible at the work place with some seeming interest in safety. The end result was of marginal safety value, but under the circumstances, better than nothing.
The next safety professional has a very different observation technique. He shows up at the front line and watches a tailboard meeting and then some individual crew instructions. All the while, he is checking instruction reality, technique, engagement style, etc. In other words, evaluating safety and operations leadership at both the supervisory and worker levels. And, of course, there are times when he chimes in and sends a strong personal message of visible upper management support for safety.
A third pro’s favorite field BBS tactic is to ask employees to explain the Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) instructions that apply to the job they are doing. That often leads to the worker training the observer (or safety pro) on how to correctly and safely do what is their day-to-day safety reality. In a short period of time, this observation process moves to credible, value- added safety engagement and demonstrates genuine, visible upper management engagement in caring about a safety culture of correct.
Yes, a level two BBS approach can be value added. However, it really needs to become a level four focus on employee knowledge utilizing the genuine one-on-one engagement of workers and managers. In doing so, there is an element of level six- passionate engagement and leadership in safety excellence. With these techniques, BBS becomes EBS (Engagement Based Safety). It is not about sitting in the background and then filling out a data card. Face-to-face safety engagement that goes beyond just watching and waiting is the key to improving the old style BBS. I have found this inevitable controversy goes away when there is noticeable, value- added engagement as a part of any safety process.