A safety observation is a proactive tool that can give you so much insight into how well your employees are following the safe work procedures in addition to how well they understand your safety training.  If you are only relying on your injury numbers, you can be blindsided by what can be the big one – a severe injury or fatality.

This makes me think of all the testing we are doing for Covid-19.  We monitor and test looking for the virus. Most of the test results are negative, but we keep testing because we know it’s out there.

Most of your observations are going to be positive.  You continuously observe like you’re on the hunt for the virus of bad behavior, but in actuality, most observations will be positive.  So why do we do them? To rout out the bad behaviors and help change them.

Plus, safety observations are a great form of positive reinforcement.

How Safety Observations Change Behavior

Adults learn best when they see how to do something and allow doing it themselves.

Another aspect is repetition. There is always the chance of complacency when they repeat a task; the employee may take shortcuts. Performing a standardized observation will reorient the employee to the proper safety work methods and reinforce why they conclude this way.

Positive feedback, even when you are correcting a behavior, has an impact on future performance.  Consistently conducting safety observations, will drive compliance with the safety rules and start building safety habits.

If they know they will be observed on the task, they are more likely to learn to do the task correctly.

What is a safety observation

A safety observation involves both the employee (the observed) and the person completing the observation (observer).

The observer watches the employee work and makes a subjective decision about if they followed the safe work practices.  A simple ‘yes’ ‘no’ can be used, a scale system from 1-5, or a tally system counting how many times they were in compliance compared to not.

Following the observation, they discussed the results with the employee and coached them on how to improve.

It All Starts With Detailed SOPs

You need to know what to observe and expect what specific safe working practices require at your facility. This is where JHAs and Standard Operating Procedures come into play.

If your SOPs are vague, your observations will be too.  The more detailed you can be, the better results you can get.

The goal of observations is to reinforce safe working practices and to identify problem areas through trending.  When SOPs are broken down into detailed steps, you can focus your trending reports on the details to find steps that are causing the most injuries or non-compliance.

This allows you to find and fix problems in your training or coaching.

Who Should Do the Safety Observations

Any trained individual may conduct a safety observation. They must get training on the SOPs they are observing, how to conduct an observation, and how to give constructive feedback.

Most observations will be done by the front line supervisors; because they have the most authority over the employee they will get the best results in behavior change.  However, department managers are also a good choice to conduct observations.

You can broaden out and include yourself as well as coworkers.  Employee to Employee observations have shown to have very positive results.  When another employee is offering feedback, there is no chance for disciplinary action if they don’t perform the task perfectly.  The observed employee is more likely to work in their normal manner as opposed to when their boss is watching them.

Disciplinary action attached to observations can be tricky.  If the employee has a history of non-compliance and they are in the progressive disciplinary process, then action may be appropriate.  However, you never want to do observations with the goal of disciplinary action.

Using a standardized form is the easiest way to complete a safety observation.  Pre-fill the form with the standard safe work steps to be observed.

I have created an Observation Form Template you can download and use for free.

You can tell the employee you’re observing them, there’s no need to be sneaky about the process.

Some say that if you tell the employee you’re observing, you won’t ‘catch’ them doing anything wrong or they will always do the task right.  One of the goals of the observation is to make sure the employee understands how to do the job right. So telling them, won’t affect that.

Transparency is always the best option when building a safety culture.

The employee is observed for the entire time they are completing the task.  For repetitive tasks, a time limit can be used. However, the time limit must be long enough to get accurate data; employees tend to be on their best behavior the first 10 minutes or so, then they relax into normal behavior – that’s what you want to measure.

Immediately following the observation, review the results with the employee

Limit Your Safety Observations

When creating your pre-filled observation forms, limit them to approximately 20 SOPs.  Trying to do too many at one time is time-consuming for the observer. There is the chance the observer will get distracted, won’t finish, or become complacent themselves over time.

If it will take more than 20 minutes to observe the task, break it into multiple observation forms.

Limiting the scope of your observation also helps with management support in the observation program.  You’re only asking for 20 minutes of the supervisor’s time; most can spare 20 minutes.

The shorter time commitment will also allow for more observations to be completed.  Observing 5-10 employees a week is better than 1 or 2. The more employees coached the better your results will be.

Another idea to limit your observations is doing them by Job Hazard Analysis (or job safety analysis).  If you pick one JHA to observe at a time, you can count this as a periodic review of your JHA and update it as needed.

Review the Safety Observation with the Employee

Last week we discussed communication styles, this is where that information will come in handy.

Following the observation, the observer and the employee need to look at the results together and have a discussion about them.  This can be done privately, or, to limit the interruption to production, you can do the review right there at the worksite.

The observer will review what they saw with curiosity – if the employee didn’t follow the SOP as expected the first thought shouldn’t be a reprimand, it should be a question.  Why? Is the SOP wrong? Is there a better way of doing the job?

These questions will lead to the discussion of why the SOP is in place and how the employee should change their behavior to prevent injury, or increase quality & productivity.  Ultimately, it is a much more positive conversation.

Benchmarking and Scoring Your Safety Observations

These steps will help you, as the safety manager, justify your observation program and trend your compliance results.  In addition, they can help your HR department.

  1. Create a scoring method for your observations. Personally, I like to use a point system.
    •  If you use a sliding scale from 1-5 that can be your point system.
    • Add up the possible points and give them a score either as points or percentage (like in school) for the observation.
    • Create a scoring method for your observations. Personally, I like to use a point system. 
  2. The first observation on a task is the benchmark.  You can record it in the employee record and compare all future observations to it.
  3. You can compile all like observations for a department or the organization as a whole to come up with a score.
  4. Period over period share the results of the observations with management and employees.  This is a great proactive trending report.
  5. Add observations to the annual employee review process to show how they are doing in their work



That was a rough review of the safety observation process.  If you’re not currently using individual employee safety observations, consider taking steps to add it to your program.  Start with doing a few yourself and seeing how it goes.

Don’t forget to download the FREE Observation Form Template.


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Hi, I'm Brye (rhymes with sky)!  I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience.  Specializing in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture, I have trained and coached many safety managers, just like you, on how to effectively manage workplace safety in the real world.   I would love to help you too.

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