Successful safety observations must be accompanied by effective conversations
Imagine it’s an electrician’s first week on the job. He is preparing to perform energized electrical work on a live electrical panel. His supervisor is standing approximately 30 feet away, bent over an iPad and engrossed in an email. The electrician isn’t entirely confident in the work plan, but he doesn’t feel comfortable approaching his supervisor, fearful that he might be viewed as unprepared or apprehensive to perform the work.
Moments later, he accidentally drops a wrench into the panel and instinctively reaches after it. This sets off an explosion of molten metal, smoke and a shockwave known as an arc flash that knocks the electrician across the hallway. By wearing a task-appropriate protective cal-suit, the electrician avoids potentially fatal injuries, but he is hospitalized with a concussion and broken bones. Although he is left with permanent partial hearing loss, he counts himself among the lucky ones. Many do not live to share lessons learned from contact with energized electrical equipment.
Imagine an entirely different scenario in which the supervisor is fully present every day with the crew. When an unsafe action or behavior is observed, the supervisor leads team members in meaningful conversations, creating a psychologically safe work environment where everyone readily asks questions and address concerns. The supervisor also leads the crew in daily pre-task planning meetings, ensuring everyone is fully aware of the work plan and understands their role in achieving project goals.
Conversations not only create more inclusive and collaborative teams—they have the power to save lives.
Its Not an Observation without a Conversation
At Balfour Beatty, we believe a true Zero Harm culture cannot be achieved where safety is approached merely as a statistic without the foundational value of putting people first.
Safety statistics are important and provide critical insights into leading indicators of incident trends and high-potential or near-miss events that could result in a fatality or life-altering injuries. Our teams and trade partners use a mobile app to document safety observations in real-time, which is continually expanding and improving our data.
Because Balfour Beatty’s people-first safety culture prioritizes the holistic well-being of every individual on our jobsites, we know that any successful safety observation must be accompanied by an effective conversation. Whether the observation is regarding an unsafe behavior or action or even a positive reinforcement of safe choices, conversations are vital to empowering the workforce to take charge of safety and conveying that when it comes to Zero Harm, it truly is people who matter most.
See Something, Say Something…In the Moment
To be effective, safety observations should be followed by immediate feedback. This lends greater credibility and significance to learning opportunities and offers the opportunity to apply corrective measures while performing the task. When given in the moment, positive reinforcement has the power to increase motivation and job satisfaction.
According to James Nacke, Safety, Health & Environmental Manager for Balfour Beatty in the Northwest, the timing of safety conversations is critical. Feedback delivered after the fact can appear procedure driven or potentially insincere whereas on the spot or conversations in the moment “demonstrate genuine concern and commitment to caring more about keeping people safe than to following the rules just because they’re there.”
While some conversations may require a few minutes to explain proper safety procedures, other topics such as proper personal protective equipment (PPE) may be covered more briefly.
Coaching vs. Criticism
The tone of a conversation following a safety observation can make all the difference in influencing behaviors and inspiring lasting change. Feedback repeatedly delivered as a lecture or reprimand can create a divide between management and the workforce that often results in increased safety incidents.
Coaching, on the other hand, invites workers into a collaborative discussion that is focused on active listening and problem-solving. When workers are approached from a place of care and concern, they better understand the importance of safe choices not only to their own health and well-being but to the entire project team.
As Balfour Beatty continues to leverage tools and technologies such as our safety observation app to achieve Zero Harm, we believe that a behavior-based safety (BBS) approach creates the best outcomes for our teams and trade partners. BBS combines the collection and analysis of safety data and risk management practices with tools that effectively influence people’s thoughts, behaviors and actions.
Data is powerful, because it tells us if we’re moving in the right or wrong direction. But safety is about more than statistics. It’s about believing workplace fatalities and injuries are entirely preventable. It’s about showing we care and living out that commitment. It’s about the honest conversations that demonstrate we prioritize people over production—every time.