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Why Safety Observations are superior to traditional checklists

When people in the construction industry think about the job of safety officers, the first image that probably comes to mind is someone on-site with a clipboard and pencil (or maybe an iPad) filling out a safety checklist. These forms have become such an integral part of a safety officer’s work, we rarely give much thought to their effectiveness. And while they certainly have played an important role in making the construction industry safer, they also have some significant drawbacks — drawbacks that performing safety observations can overcome.

The drawbacks of safety checklists

First, safety checklists are typically used by only one or two safety officers or supervisors. Whether they’re using a clipboard or a tablet, the person filling out the checklist goes one-by-one, looking at every item and marking whether safety practices are being followed. This means that observations happen, at best, once per day, because, with a safety checklist, after an item is marked as done, it won’t get revisited until it’s time to fill out a new form. In the meantime, when a trade worker removes protective gear or a ladder is placed in a precarious position, the safety violation goes unobserved and unrecorded. 

Another drawback is that checklists require a fair amount of time to complete, which means that it’s a job assigned to just one or two people. You can’t have everyone on a job site stopping for 30 minutes to fill out a form, and that limits the number of people who are actively paying close attention to safety practices, both good and bad. Not only does this mean there are just a couple pair of eyes on safety for short bursts of time, but it also places the responsibility for safety in the hands of just a couple of people. Checklists don’t create a sense of shared responsibility, which is critical to building a safety culture.

A focus on finding what’s wrong

Checklists also have a bias towards identifying what’s going wrong with safety on-site. The person filling out the checklist looks to see whether a specific hazard is present or a safety rule is being violated, and if the answer is negative, then they simply move on to the next item. There’s no incentive or mechanism to recognize and reward good safety practice. That’s a big drawback, because studies show that rewarding good practice is far more effective than punishment when it comes to changing employee behavior.

Finally, unless checklists are digitized, it’s cumbersome to digitize the data captured in paper checklists for analysis. And if data isn’t analyzed to provide a holistic view of safety trends on-site, then the safety program will get lost in the weeds of individual safety violations, instead of assessing the overall risk each site faces over time and identifying measures that can mitigate these risks.


Log Safety Observations on fully developed module for iOS, Google Play and web browser.

The advantages of safety observations

In a safety-observations model, everyone on-site is encouraged — or even required — to make daily safety observations, noting both the good and improper safety practices they witness. Obviously, everyone needs to be well-trained in good safety in order to make these observations, but this is a feature, not a bug. Every employee on the job site becomes responsible for knowing good safety practices, and that knowledge is constantly reinforced  because they have to use it daily to make safety observations. Because everyone is responsible for safety observations, this practice strengthens the organization’s safety culture.

Plus, safety observations don’t take much time to make, especially if the organization uses electronic means, such as a ruggedized tablet or smartphone, to log observations. It takes less than a minute to note someone moving a precarious ladder to a safer position or another person working without a vest. Note that I included a positive safety practice — that’s very important. As I alluded to before, a safety observations program that is punitive in nature won’t see the same positive results as one whose goals are to gather as much data as possible and reward good practice. 

Just as important, however, is the fact that a safety observations program produces data that can be used to power Predictive-Based Safety. By taking advantage of artificial intelligence and advanced analytics, organizations can use this data to understand how risk changes over time, which sites have the highest risk, and what measures the organization can take to prevent incidents before they occur. Even better, if you’re using tablets and smartphones to record observations, employees can submit photos along with textual observations. These photos enrich the observational data, and, in the case of Newmetrix, our AI (nicknamed “Vinnie”) can analyze the images to make even more observations, noticing things that a human being might overlook so it can provide an even more accurate analysis of safety risk.

Valuable as they have been to improving safety within the construction industry, safety checklists are rooted in the past. Construction companies need to take a new, observational approach that strengthens the safety culture and provides raw data that advanced technologies need to produce insights that can move organizations closer to the coveted goal of zero incidents.

See Safety Observations in action


Written by Tim Gattie

Tim is VP of Industry Strategy at Newmetrix. He has 20 years of construction industry experience working for regional, national and international general contractors in roles ranging from Field Engineer to Project Director. Tim is passionate about using technology as a tool to improve the way construction projects are delivered and is eager to share his story with others in the industry. Gattie graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelors of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering and is a Registered Professional Engineer in Arizona, California and Utah. When not at work, Tim enjoys golfing, traveling and being a great dad to his two boys.

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