Building a culture of safety is no simple job. Why? It’s not running the EHS management system itself, which can automate many essential functions from Incident Reporting to Risk Management to Document Control. It’s the human element. That is, trying to effect behavior change in employees.
People get used to doing things a certain way—the way they drive, the way they perform a certain task, the way they wear (or don’t wear) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Getting people to move away from unsafe actions is the central challenge of behavior-based safety programs used by many companies.
And though observation is something we tend to take for granted, it’s one of the most important skills for achieving success with your safety program. That’s because safety relies not just on better training, but also on individuals taking responsibility for unsafe conditions or actions they personally observe.
Within this context, improving our observation skills can help us reduce hazards, learn from near-misses and make plans for safe work, all of which are essential elements of a safer workplace. Here are some simple techniques to hone your skills.
1. Slow down. Have you ever driven home lost in thought, and then not been able to remember anything about the ride? When we’re on auto-pilot, we don’t notice what’s happening around us. It’s easy to see how this can be dangerous in the workplace.
To break this habit, challenge yourself to slow down and notice your environment. Try to observe at least one new thing daily, both at work and at home.
When we make a conscious effort to be aware of our surroundings, we notice things we might otherwise miss, like an uncovered floor hole, improperly used PPE or an inadequately guarded machine part. Only once we make the observation can we correct the problem, using tools like Corrective and Preventive Action.
2. Change up your routine. This is another technique to help break your auto-pilot habit. Changes you could make include:
- Rearrange your desk to face another direction.
- Vary your driving route to or from the office.
- Have lunch with someone different at work.
- Try new things (food, music, experiences, etc.).
Changing old habits often gives us fresh perspective, revealing things we hadn’t noticed before. Plus, new experiences engage our attention, also making us more aware of our surroundings.
3. Ask questions as you actively observe your environment. Throughout the day, ask yourself:
- What’s the same?
- Is there anything different?
- Why might this be important?
Asking questions is crucial to several EHS job activities, but you also have to draw connections between your observations and other facts available to you.
For example, if you observe an unsafe behavior, simply correcting the behavior means missing out on a critical opportunity. Instead, ask questions. Why did the employee perform the task like this? Was the person trained to do it that way? It’s possible there’s a gap in Employee Training. Or maybe a personal issue is making him distracted (and maybe not the best candidate to run the forklift right now). Actively observing and making these types of connections is key to improving safety performance.
4. Take notes everywhere, whether it’s margins of books, report printouts, or your morning newspaper. Making margin notes, questioning and analyzing as you go, strengthens observation and critical thinking skills. It also boosts comprehension and helps solidify ideas in your mind.
In the workplace, many organizations are now moving to EHS management systems with mobile capabilities, using devices like tablets and iPads which can also let you take notes on the fly.
5. Flex your brain with logic games and puzzles. Other exercises to strengthen your memory muscle include:
- Leaving your office, then making a list of everything you can remember in it.
- Spending time recalling and thinking about the day’s events later in the evening.
- Challenging yourself weekly to remember as many details of a past event as possible.
6. Look for the positive, recognizing employees for safe behaviors. The job of an EHS manager is to keep workers safe, so it’s understandable they end up focusing much of their energy on hazards and unsafe behaviors. But the truth is, creating a culture of safety also requires positive reinforcement, so look for best practices that can be communicated with the group.
And when you have to correct an unsafe behavior? Remember that to keep the lines of communication open, you should never use observation as a punitive tool. The goal is fact finding, not fault finding.
7. Meditate. If this sounds a little out there, stick with me for a moment. Many have found that mindfulness meditation offers several benefits, from reducing stress and anxiety to enhancing your observation skills.
The good news is, you don’t have to spend hours on it, nor does it mean achieving some super-disciplined state of mind free from all thoughts. In fact, three minutes daily, spent breathing and noticing your thoughts, is enough to help you improve your mindfulness. Check out some free meditations to get you started here.
For safety to work, you have to empower all employees to take responsibility for unsafe conditions or behaviors they observe. Improving observation skills can have a big impact on the results of your company’s safety program, reducing hazards for a safer workplace.