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Optimizing Your Observation Program

World class organizations do not achieve sustained excellence in safety without a process in place that identifies risk exposure prior to an incident or injury. Yet countless companies have established observation programs without measurable success. In the paragraphs that follow, we would like to re-establish the importance of a proactive observation strategy, as well as offer a roadmap to ensuring effectiveness.

Broken Windows

Before we launch into the elements of an effective observation program, I wanted to introduce a theory that has become foundational in our thinking. Back in 1982, criminologists James Wilson and Catherine Coles introduced what came to be known as the “Broken Windows” theory. Their theory states that crime is an inevitable result of disorder. In other words, context plays a material role in how people act. Specifically, if a neighborhood is plagued by broken windows and graffiti, people will conclude that no one cares. The result will inevitably be more broken windows and more graffiti. Ultimately, minor infractions will lead to major crimes, and a steady decline of the neighborhood. Conversely, an orderly neighborhood free of property damage and litter indicates an environment where such things are not tolerated.

In the mid-1980’s violent crime in New York city was escalating at an alarming rate, especially in the subway system. City leadership decided to put the Broken Windows theory to the test by removing the graffiti from all the subway trains. If a train was tagged, the graffiti was to be removed within 24 hours. The thought was in order to win the battle against crime you had to change the environment, specifically what people saw. Detractors considered this approach to be a waste of time, not seeing the connection between crime and context. As it happens, the detractors were wrong. New York subway crime fell dramatically throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. According to author Malcolm Gladwell, New York reached a “tipping point” where crime trends reversed dramatically.

We see a powerful connection between context and behavior, and we think there are profound applications to your safety program. It is our hope that we can help your safety culture reach a similar tipping point.

The Power of Context in Safety

Over the past few years there has been a global movement towards preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities (SIF’s). Having been at the epicenter of two workplace fatalities, we couldn't agree more. However, many safety practitioners today believe if we target the serious incident, we will by default eliminate the less serious risks. We would suggest the opposite is also true. We have found that by proactively focusing on the observable safety aspects of a worksite, we will influence the decisions of individual workers, and ultimately change the entire culture.

Consider the example of a distribution line crew. Imagine the crew sometimes wore hard hats on the job, or occasionally wore traffic vests in the street. Imagine they sometimes put outrigger pads down, or wheel chocks behind their wheels. Imagine they wore safety glasses from time to time. Most would consider these infractions relatively minor, especially when compared to grounding or fall protection. However, they all contribute to observable context, which impacts individual decisions, which ultimately defines culture.

So how do we consistently improve the culture within which our employees make decisions? Our experience would suggest implementing a proactive observation program. But for your observation program to be effective, there are a few steps you absolutely must take. By taking the following steps, we believe your chances of experiencing a cultural tipping point are greatly increased.

Over the next few posts we will look at proven steps you can take to change your context and thus your culture.

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