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September 4, 2013

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What goes on tour


Workplace safety tours have been around for years, but they aren’t always given enough thought and planning. Richard Byrne reminds practitioners how to harness their potential and use them to influence workers and leaders alike.
Best practice for site safety tours
The sight of senior managers and directors undertaking a safety tour of a workplace is a common occurrence in many businesses. 
When done well they serve to help drive an organisation’s safety performance and culture. By dedicating a significant portion of time to health and safety, the senior manager can help demonstrate to front-line workers and their managers how ‘committed’ they are to health and safety. There is, of course, the added benefit that they help connect the organisation’s senior people with the front line and the safety challenges they face.
However, experience and research suggest that organisations sometimes fail to get the most out of the opportunities that safety tours present.
In most organisations, a typical safety tour involves a business leader taking some time to carry out a high-level safety inspection, before going through a ‘checklist’ of issues to make sure the necessary safety controls are in place and are being followed. If they aren’t, they ask the local manager to make them happen. 
While there is some benefit in this basic approach, experience shows that really effective safety tours focus on key themes and do not always result in what you might be expecting. They are not really about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of safety — such as PPE, or manual-handling techniques — but are more over-arching. Their main aims are to:
  • assure yourself that things are being done safely, or that particular safety messages are getting through;
  • motivate people to work safely;
  • educate people about safety, or better understand how to do a particular job safely.
Using four scenarios, let’s explore the difference between the ‘tick-box’ approach and the three themes described above for creating effective safety tours. 
The main protagonist of our scenarios is Jonathan. He is a regional manager for a large multi-site business and responsible for some 300 people across 35 locations. His region is split into three areas each with an area manager. Each location has a manager, an assistant, an administrator, and seven or eight ‘workers’. Jonathan’s position in the organisation is classed as mid-to-senior management, so there is another layer or two between him and the Board.
He sets aside two days a month to carry out his safety tours and, over the course of the year, he manages to get around all his sites. When walking around a facility, he tends to be accompanied by the area manager and the site manager.
Scenario one: Governed by the checklist
This tour, like many before, was a bit of a rush for Jonathan. The day before was full of meetings at the firm’s head office, so he didn’t arrive home until quite late. Then, the following morning, leaving the house was a struggle, as his children wanted to play. 
Nevertheless, he managed to arrive at the site on time, slip on his PPE, and launched into the tour, running through his checklist as he went. There were occasions, however, when he came across to those who accompanied him on the tour, and to those to whom he was talking, as though he didn’t fully understand what he was doing. He also seemed distracted and uninterested in finding out the real cause of any problems; instead, he just wanted to deal with the symptom and tick his form.
The leader responsible for carrying out a safety tour needs to have an appreciation of the tone they set, and as Jonathan didn’t prepare properly for the tour, he relied on the checklist to direct him, rather than really digging under the issues he was finding, such as why the team wasn’t wearing the correct PPE.
How to overcome
In hindsight, the day Jonathan chose to conduct the tour probably wasn’t ideal, but because everyone was so busy and had various other pressures to juggle, he decided he had little choice but to do the tour on that day. So, to draw on an analogy: rather than trying to paint a battleship with one tin of paint and spreading it so thin that the coat is inadequate, he would have been better painting one critical area really well. In other words, focus on one core theme.
Scenario two: Assuring yourself people are working safely
Jonathan decided he would deal with the fact that the team to whom he had just been talking weren’t wearing the appropriate PPE for the job. 
He asked them: “Don’t you need to be wearing some PPE to do that?”, which prompted the group to look somewhat red-faced, saying they’d go and put it on immediately. Jonathan felt good, as he had corrected some unsafe behaviour (which he had also noted on his checklist). Returning a short while later, he found that the team had apparently finished the task while wearing the necessary PPE.
The short-term outcome may have given Jonathan some satisfaction, but he skimmed across the surface of the issue and didn’t dig down to find the true cause of the problem — i.e. why the team weren’t wearing their PPE. 
From the workers’ body language, Jonathan felt assured enough that they would wear their PPE, and so he carried on. His confidence was only boosted when he returned and found they had moved on to another task. But is this assurance, or something else? 
We can all probably recall an instance when we’ve dealt with the symptom rather than the cause. But addressing the cause is the most important thing when conducting an assurance-focused safety tour.
How to overcome
If, on the way to the tour, Jonathan had thought: ‘Right, today, I’m going to just focus on assuring myself people are working safely’, he would have discovered the PPE problem and not been constrained by his checklist, which, no doubt, asks something like: ‘Is the correct PPE being worn?’ In reducing his scope a little, he might have had the time to follow the system through to find out where this safety control had fallen down. Jonathan could have asked some simple questions to help identify the root cause — for example:
  • did they know they had to use PPE? 
  • did they have the appropriate kit?  
  • had they asked for the PPE, but were told there was no budget?  
  • was there a problem with the supplier?
  • was the PPE they were instructed to use for the task actually usable in that situation?  
By addressing the crux of the matter, the effect Jonathan can have on safety is far more wide-reaching than simply ‘catching’ a few people not using the correct PPE. He could, for instance, have gone back to the safety team, and said: “The PPE you specify for the teams to do ‘x’ job is inadequate. We need to do something because, when challenged, they responded in a positive fashion.”
Alternatively, he could have asked the procurement department to review its supplier arrangements so the company can get the correct kit to the people on the front line more quickly. Ultimately, the positive impact generated by one safety tour focused on addressing a specific problem can be enormous for the whole organisation.
Scenario three: Motivating people to work safely
Jonathan conducted the rest of his tour in much the same way, spotting hazards and asking the workers and their managers to address them. But, other than being present, you couldn’t really say that he motivated them to work safely, apart from, perhaps, motivating them not to get caught working unsafely while he was there.
Motivating people to work safely is something that, traditionally, people find difficult to do. It can often be hard not to come across as patronising, but motivating people is a key part of any leadership role. 
How to overcome
This is an issue that is actually far easier to overcome than you might think. 
When Jonathan was in his first management position, one of his team was involved in an accident at work — not a hugely serious one, but enough for them to go to hospital. 
Jonathan was the one who made the call to the injured person’s wife. He still remembers the momentary silence at the end of the phone when he explained that her husband had just been taken to hospital in an ambulance, and the second it took for her to register that her husband would be OK. Unsurprisingly, Jonathan didn’t enjoy that part of being a manager and vowed at the time that he’d never allow himself to be put in that situation again.
Everyone has a story, a reason why safety is important to them — even the hardest-to-reach managers. Imagine if Jonathan had pulled together the majority of the workers before they started their shift and said: “You’ll see me walking around the site today. There’s nothing to worry about, I’m just really keen to see how you do your job.  Safety is really important to me because when I had my first management job. . .”
Sharing an experience with others can have a huge effect. It makes Jonathan seem more real and human — not just the big boss, snooping around. It helps him show that he isn’t just saying safety is important because he has too. Plus, people can relate, because everyone would dread the thought of being on the receiving end of one of those calls, whether it concerns their wife, husband, children, or parents.
For the rest of the tour Jonathan focuses on finding people who are working safely and giving positive feedback, such as: “That’s perfect, keep going, you’re doing a great job there.” He also explores some other issues by posing questions — e.g. “What else would help you work more safely?” is a question that would enable him to identify some areas for safety improvements — not only for the team and site but, potentially, the organisation, too. It is well known that taking people’s ideas and turning them into a reality is proven to drive employee engagement and boost motivation.
Scenario four: Educate
Six months ago Jonathan’s organisation introduced a set of minimum safety rules outlining the fundamental steps people should follow in order to prevent serious injury, or worse while carrying out their jobs. 
During the tour Jonathan observed that the posters used to promote the safety rules were on display in the mess room and toilets, as well as the works vehicles. On several occasions he remarked to the manager and workers that he was very impressed by this, and also had a quick chat about the rules with some of the team upon observing the workers carrying out a task in adherence to them.
On this occasion, what Jonathan did isn’t wrong. Far from it, in fact; he simply focused on some positives and talked to some of the front-line operatives about the rules. He did, however, miss the opportunity to explain to those he met about the importance of the rules. This is the key area of focus for an educational safety tour.
How to overcome
In order to educate, you need to know a bit about the subject yourself. Jonathan knows about the rules — not only has he been fully briefed on them but he helped shape them by giving his input into a consultation undertaken by the safety team.  
Nevertheless, by sharing with people the reasons why the rules were introduced, Jonathan could have had a much bigger impact and reinforced their importance to a greater extent. 
Imagine that the workers who he came across were working under a vehicle supported by an axle stand (a control measure translated into one of the minimum safety rules). 
Yes, he acknowledged they were working safely, but he could have gone further by saying something along the lines of: “A lot of people think these rules are common sense, but I was amazed when I found out that last year ten people were hurt when vehicles fell on them while doing precisely what you are doing there now. The thing is they didn’t use an axle stand.”
From experience, painting this type of picture has a positive effect, even if you just do so on a one-to-one basis. To continue with the education theme, Jonathan could have followed this through even further and asked:
  • what are the other rules?
  • how do they apply to what you do?
  • what is the hardest rule to follow? and
  • what would make things easier?
The idea of safety tours isn’t new — they’ve been happening for years. But they haven’t really evolved to reflect the changes in organisations’ safety culture and leadership thinking.
Any practitioner who is still unconvinced about the potential benefits — both direct and indirect — that can be gained from adopting a more strategic approach to safety tours, consider this challenge: observe a few safety tours with this article in mind, and then undertake three yourself, each time focusing on a different element. The chances are you will start to see the opportunities available to you.
Once you have got over this initial hurdle, you then have to help your organisation’s senior managers and directors change their approach. This is worthy of an article in its own right — but, as a start, you could suggest they repeat the exercise you’ve just gone through themselves.
Like great leaders, great safety professionals aren’t afraid to challenge, or to try to see things from a different perspective. 
Richard Byrne is route safety improvement manager at Network Rail.

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10 years ago

thnx Mr.R.byrne for your well said topic. Keep posting.