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Much (perhaps too much) of the safety literature of the last few years has focused on employee driven “behavior-based safety” peer observation programs. The fact remains, however, that safety is a line management responsibility.
Implied in that responsibility is the need (obligation?) to fully understand how safely the work employees are responsible for is performed. There is only so much you can learn from accident rates and other performance indicators, regardless of how well they are crafted. Thus, some level of line supervision work observation appears essential to effective safety management.
In fact, many safety experts believe that management safety walkarounds are the single most important activity any organization can take to promote safety.
Stated simply, management walkarounds put managers in the field to observe work in progress in order to identify and discuss opportunities to enhance the safety of that work with the workers involved. Regardless of how you describe them, these routine manager/employee safety interactions (i.e., management walkarounds) are a vital part of the safety effort for many diverse companies. General Motors (GM), DuPont, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Honeywell, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) are just a few examples.
Although no two organizations implement management walkarounds in exactly the same way, the importance of walkarounds calls for some agreement in definition and the basic principles for success.
For more than 20 years, I have studied how successful companies such as DuPont implement their management walkaround programs. During those 20 years, I have also accumulated considerable experience (both good and bad) in implementing walkaround programs for various organizations. This experience has led me to the following “rules” for any truly successful walkaround program.
1. Walkarounds must be – and must be perceived as – a partnering between management and employees to focus on safety improvement. Workers are the individuals closest to the work and know better than anyone what the hazards are and how well the controls (if any) are working. When the workers are engaged as partners in the safety improvement process, they are much more likely to see themselves as a genuine part of the safety solution.
2. Walkarounds must focus on work – not merely conditions or a specific set of behaviors. Observing actual work activities is the best way for managers to understand the overall effectiveness of the safety effort. The goal is not to monitor compliance with safety rules, but to evaluate the overall safety of work activities during their conduct.
Why a work focused approach? Consider that just seven hours prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 and sent 50,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico for months, top managers from both BP and Transocean were on the platform walking around. They were focused, however, on conditions such as fall protection devices, and trip hazards and a specific employee behavior — glove use.
Missing from their walkaround was any serious attempt to find out how the very critical well-capping work was progressing, thus tragically missing an opportunity to deal with the many safety issues that were affecting the capping effort.
3. Walkarounds take time. Generally, five to 30 minutes is adequate unless the walkaround involves a particularly critical work activity. Some organizations expect supervisors to conduct walkarounds daily. Others require walkarounds on a monthly basis. Whatever the frequency, walkarounds (and walkaround follow-ups) do require some expenditure of a scarce management component – time.
4. Walkarounds are not inspections. This point is somewhat redundant with number 2 above, but is so important it bears repeating. Successful walkarounds focus principally on what employees are doing rather than on workplace conditions and predetermined specific behaviors.
Remember, good walkarounds are employee/supervisor partnering exercises, not compliance inspections. This element is probably the most important yet most commonly misunderstood of all walkaround features.
To get the most out of a management walkaround it should focus on the work and the systems that either assist on hinder its conduct. Workplace conditions and unsafe behavior can be significant safety issues but are often little more than symptoms of the true problems.
In addition to the extremely important function of demonstrating management’s commitment to safety, walkarounds provide a number of positive byproducts. For example, effective walkarounds should provide the following:
1. Enhance Employee Morale. Employees react positively to management interest in their work, not to mention the visible concern for their welfare.
2. Build Better Understanding of Operations. Many of these insights simply cannot be obtained from behind a desk.
3. Build Positive Management/Employee Relations. Walkarounds can serve as the basis for positive employee/supervisor interactions for any organizational issue. Although it is important that safety walkarounds do in fact focus on safety, success in this area can lead to better cooperation across the board.
4. Identify Opportunities for Improvement. Walkarounds do more than just sell safety. They nearly always identify specific opportunities for improvement – many of which go far beyond safety.
There is more to come on how to implement a management walkaround program, tips, and pitfalls, in future article(s).
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on on the Safety Cary blog and has been republished with permission.
Loud’s more than 40 years of safety experience includes work with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences and the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.