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How to Screw-up a Safety Observation

Many years ago when safety observations began in modern industry, observers trained like robots would walk up to someone performing a job and ask, “Is there anything you can do to make this job safer?”  Immediately the person being observed would emotionally put up a barrier because they felt that they must be doing something wrong.  This interaction began to erode the safety observation process in many workplaces where it was needed most.  But that’s not all that it took to screw-up an observation.

Another problem was the walk by or drive by observation.  Many supervisors would be required to complete a certain number of observations each month along with all the other work assigned to them.  To complete the required number they might walk or drive by a job site without speaking to anyone and perhaps not even stopping at the site.  Back at the office the supervisor would fill out the observation forms and turn them into the safety office.  Upon review the safety office would conduct an investigation of the unsafe behavior reported (if any) on the observation form and the workers would naturally be mad.  Their responses would normally be, “Well if we were doing something unsafe, they should have stopped and told us!”  One can easily see how trust between the observed and the observer can be eroded.  Broken trust can go far beyond the two people involved and pervade the whole organization. If the observer and observed are not sincere about reducing the risk of an injury then an observation program can do more harm than good.

To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity. – Douglas Adams

We can tell when someone is not sincere about the task they are doing.  If you go to a store and the clerk is just waiting for the clock to tick around to quitting time you can see it in their behaviors.  I have asked the checker at the grocery store, “How are you today?” “Just waiting for quitting time!”  At that point I feel that I am just another pain in their butt!  I can see how we might not be sincere about checking people out at the grocery store, but shouldn’t we be sincere about keeping people safe?

In the last chapter of my newest book Safety Attitudes (available at: I challenge the reader to think differently about working safe.  If we sincerely want to be safe, our attitude towards being observed should be receptive.  Performing an observation can be stressful because we think the person observed is going to lash out or push back on any suggested improvements in mitigating the risk of injury.  On the other hand, the observed person feels like they are in trouble.  If the observer will put everyone’s minds at ease by demonstrating a sincere desire to help them go home at the end of the work day uninjured the process will build up and not erode the trust between them.

If you are being observed drop your emotional guard.  If the observer seems to be ill at ease, tell them that you appreciate another set of eyes on the job.  Have a conversation, not a confrontation with them.  An observation process can help to increase awareness and overcome complacency when performed and received in the proper way.  The alternative is that we can have a bad attitude towards it and really screw it up. Be deliberate in your role in the safety observation process so everyone can go home every day without injury.


Carl Potter is a internationally known safety speaker, consultant and is the author of Carl Potter’s Hazard Recognition and Control Workshop and the primary facilitator for delivering it to clients across the United States and Canada.    This workshop is not your standard hazard recognition training.  The most common comment from participants is that everyone should be required to attend his workshop.  Carl developed this after recognizing that workers walk right past hazards that can lead to injury because they fail to recognize them.  To learn more about this workshop and how your organization can bring it to your location visit:

Carl can also be reached by email at:

2 Responses to How to Screw-up a Safety Observation

  • Mike Godfrey says:

    Great article! An effective observation program requires the trust of both sides and a focus on learning and improving, not finding fault and disciplining.

  • Steve Cunningham says:

    Good article that should give everyone with an observation program something to think about. I believe there should be a comprehensive training program to train (and continue to refresh periodically) bot observers and those who will be observed. This should include some role playing and how to skillfully break down the barriers and address the AWKWARDNESS. When someone is doing something unsafe anyone should feel the need to stop the action as you may not get another chance!

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