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Pencil Whipping Health and Safety or Just not using the Data Properly to Prevent Incidents

As injuries occur, safety management teams work to enhance their safety programs and processes. One addition may be to add an observation process to their program. H.S.E. studies have shown that conducting observations influence a safer work environment by providing opportunities to re-direct unsafe behaviors and correct unsafe conditions. The re-direction of these behaviors is driven by leading indicators. Leading indicators are the pieces of your data that, in basic terms, sound the alarm that safety is being handled improperly on the site.   Paper and pencil has long been replaced by the electronic mobile device, AKA your cell phone and tablet.  Apple and Android have put aside their differences to help your organization more effectively gather, dissect, and organize your safety data.  Gone are the times of overstuffed filing cabinets, bursting at the seams with inspections that will likely never again see the light of day.  Sure, the upside of pencil and paper is that anyone can use it, and also that it doesn’t require electricity or an internet connection, but that’s about where it ends.  A piece of paper cannot help to keep workers accountable for resolving issues, and furthermore, it’s extremely difficult to run reports on the leafy contents of your file drawer without the tedious manual entry of data into a reporting program. 

Depending on the work at hand, many organizations set a numeric expectation of inspections per week, or even have a daily requirement. Assuming this number is in correlation with the risk level (hopefully it is), the number of inspections per time period is of value.  But are you creating paper for the sake of paper or do you staff understand the VALUE of that single observation card they just filled out?

Workplace observations are usually performed so that these differences can be spotted and remedied prior to injury. However, what usually happens is a ‘whack-a-mole’ evolution where hazards or at-risk behaviors are sometimes spotted yet only the apparent symptoms are addressed.

Do you have NO Diversity in Inspectors Safety management staff performs most of the safety inspections, but should the buck stop there? Can the operations team bring value by examining risk through the observation process? After all, who really has the most influence on the production line or job site? Employees’ performance shifts when a known safety staff member walks the work area. Some get nervous. Others decide to take a break or perform a light task. On the other hand, when the front line supervisor or project superintendent is walking around, the attitude is to work hard or even harder to show you are pulling your weight and adding value to the team.

You the worker hand it in we the management team use it HOW?

  • Can you turn observation data into actionable information?
  • Can you obtain real-time reporting from the data collected?
  • Can reporting of information be done beyond the single worksite assessment?
  • Can you trend the information collected such as by category, area, and observer?
  • Can you track and trend observation data beyond a single facility or project?
  • Can you benchmark and compare your observation data with other companies?
  • Can you track leadership’s engagement in the safety process?
  • Can the data you collect help you predict where your next injury will occur?


The more diverse the observer, the better observation data you will receive. Lack of diversity is a leading indicator that not everyone who has an influence on the employees has the opportunity to provide the observation data needed. Lack of diversity may even imply that the people responsible for safety are only those with a safety title.

Alternatively, if used appropriately, the percent safe metric can provide some key benefits. The first is long term trending at the categorical level. We must remember that an inspection is a snapshot in time. When a statistically significant number of observations are collected with the same or similar theme (e.g. Fall Protection category) percent safe can provide a good metric on the efficacy of the safety process.

The percent safe metric can also be used to measure systemic progress. When a process is deemed ‘out of control’ or in need of improvement, then percent safe is a good metric to determine if positive strides are being made. More safes should be seen and fewer unsafe observations should be discovered if action is taken to apply controls to the process. The key again is that the data must be closely grouped within a common theme and evaluated for value.

“Pencil whipping is a euphemism used to describe when workers, supervisors and, yes, safety managers, fill out observation cards, sometimes in great numbers, without actually conducting the observation (much less providing the critical feedback).” Relying on the count of inspections completed is not enough to make a difference in your safety process.

Your business assumption is that less than 100 percent must mean an unsafe work environment or lack of supervision. Another reason is because they have been told not to document deficiencies. Are they correcting issues? Of course they are; however, they are not documenting them. Documenting deficiencies may not be an approved practice. Some organizations want to give the impression that they perform100 percent safe all the time; however, if the observers continue to submit 100 percent safe observations, your data will show zero leading indictators.

You cannot track, trend or learn what is not documented. Unsafe observations are the snapshots of the behaviors and conditions on the project. These are the precursors of incidents. The unsafe observations tell a story about the risks the team is taking. Unsafe observation data will provide the safety team the information they need to have conversations with individuals and teams to eliminate the potential for an incident.

Too Many Unsafe Observations On the other end of the spectrum are too many unsafe observations. While collecting unsafe observations provides a picture of the risks the teams are taking at a particular time, too many unsafe observations tells a story about how safety is being managed on a project (or rather, how it’s not). Observers will find unsafe conditions and behaviors as they walk their work areas; however, the number and severity of the observations should be at a steady decline versus an incline if the culture is focused around safety.

A companies continuous high percentage of unsafe observations is a leading indicator that the project is mismanaging the unsafe behaviors and conditions. The steady incline can be an indication the observers are not coaching those who are in violation. Instead, they are simply recording the issue they corrected. Recording the violation is but one step of the process. The step that makes a difference in how people perform their work will depend on the coaching and information they receive after the violation is discovered.

Terry Penney

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