Customer Perspectives: Leadership Safety Observation & Messaging

This is an article based on coaching I have performed for leaders at WestRock. It discusses the leader’s role in creating an injury free culture, where employees make the safe choice every time. It highlights the importance of regular safety observation and messaging and the necessary aspects of creating this culture.

Leaders create the safety culture at our sites – by what we expect, what we inspect, what we talk about (or don’t talk about, when we should), how we talk about it, how often we talk about it, what we measure / make important, and what we will or will not accept. Leaders must set high standards of behavior and ensure employees have the knowledge, skills and expectation to conduct risk assessments and perform their jobs safely.

Observations and messaging are the means for leaders to inspect for adherence to the procedures / practices, and regularly reinforce what is important to them and valued by our organization. This time on the floor is only effective when two things happen:

Observation: Leaders recognize potential at risk conditions / behaviors, act, and hold people accountable for their role:

  • In some cases, we miss exposures that are there, or accept them as normal.
  • In other cases, unsafe or less safe behavior is accepted as normal.

Messaging: Leaders discuss safety with employees in a credible way that recognizes good behaviors (positive reinforcement), and engages people in finding safe solutions to things that are questionable or flat out unsafe. In other words, create pride, ownership, and the understanding that leaders care.

Safety Observation

Observation and messaging are skills that can be learned as well as improved. Here are some ways to develop these skills.


Go with a purpose – Do not just “tour the facility.” Decide, in advance, the location you intend to go to, and what specifically you intend to inspect or observe. Unless you come upon an unexpected outage or issue, stick to your intended objective.

Examples of focus topics:

  • Types of injury risks, like finger and hands, back strains, etc. for specific tasks or work stations.
  • The quality of, and adherence to, safe operating procedures.
  • Understanding and use of pre-task safety assessment (JHA, Pre-Task Plan for Safety, etc.).

Watch the people and the equipment  – Unsafe behaviors contribute to a high number of injuries, yet many leaders shift attention to how the equipment is running rather than how people are interacting with it.

If we see an unsafe behavior, we need to avoid the temptation to blame the employee and instead ask, why are they doing it this way? Seek to understand from their point of view.

  • Is all the proper PPE worn and correctly employed?
  • Pay attention to hands, footing, and posture.
  • Pay attention to tools. Most hand incidents are related to tool use.
  • Is it the right tool, is it in good condition, and is it being used properly?

Observe critically – Ask what would happen if…something slipped or shifted, moved a bit earlier or later, started or stopped at a different time, was heavier or lighter, etc. Understand the potential variation in the process and how the employee could be affected.

Spend quality time for observation – Short or “fly-by” observations tell us almost nothing about what the person does and the kind of situations they must deal with during a day.

  • Twenty minutes is better.
  • Twenty minutes, at different times, observing different people, on the same task is even better to ensure consistent implementation of the correct method.

Learn observation skills from others – Practice paired observations and take others with you so you calibrate what each other sees. When two people share what they see, we often improve both persons’ observation skills. This is a great way to understand the observation skills of people in your organization and help develop them further.

Find the opportunity to learn – Approach an observation from the viewpoint of a learner, not a teacher.

  • If someone displays at-risk behavior, ask yourself (and them), why?
  • What factors may be influencing their decision?
  • Why would they believe taking this risk was necessary, even though their safety was at stake?
  • What have YOU (or others) said or done that could be influencing their decision?
  • Have they heard and do they truly believe that no task is so urgent or important that we cannot take the time to do it safely.
  • Next, consider changes that can be made to the site’s overall safety management system and culture that led to the behavior.

Evaluate the big picture

  • Is the area in the proper condition for work to be done?
  • This means clean, orderly, healthy, and in a ready state.
  • Examples: lighting, housekeeping, needed materials at hand, signage, guarding, etc.
  • It should take less than a minute to determine if the environment supports people to be safe.


Messages are fundamentally of three varieties:

  1. Recognition – create pride
  2. Coach / Counsel – set a clear expectation, engage minds to see and solve issues, or encourage peer feedback
  3. Visionary – reinforce goals / direction of organization

Each person and situation has different considerations for an effective conversation about safety. Here are some aspects of effective messaging or coaching.

Know your audience and tailor your messages.

The stars – Have their hearts and minds engaged in safety.

  • They believe they are responsible for their own safety.
  • They will look out for their peers and champion initiatives.
  • Safety is top-of-mind with them because it is an ingrained value.
  • We do not have to coach them as much, but should recognize and reward their behaviors and contribution.
  • Make it personal and sincere.

The stars are often natural leaders and can be enrolled to help build a culture where safety is valued.

The at-risk – The people we worry about may make poor choices – particularly at 2:00am, when nobody else is around and they are dealing with a risky situation.

  • They may believe the company or supervisor is responsible for their safety vs. themselves.
  • They may question and resist even basic safety standards, such as wearing PPE.
  • They often have other performance issues.

We have very few at-risk employees, but they consume a disproportionate amount of leadership time. They have more minor injuries and a higher risk of serious injury during their career. As long as they are part of the organization, we can never give up trying to engage their hearts and minds to ensure they will make safe choices.

Our messages must contain clear expectations and demand 100% compliance to standards.

  • Ensure they not only understand what the standards are, by also WHY they are in place.
  • Get them to focus on the people and things that would be most impacted if they were to be injured.

If after our best efforts, they are still unwilling to work safely, we must hold them accountable.

The good – The clear majority of our people.

They are the heart of the organization. As they go, so goes the organization’s culture.

They respond to credible leadership that provides:

  • Goals and training so they know what to do and how to do it in a safe manner
  • An understanding of why it is important
  • The right tools and equipment in proper condition to complete the work
  • The right skills to work effectively with others within the company’s culture
  • Avenues to solicit, listen to, and respond to suggestions about how to improve
  • Feedback

It is our job to provide these things. They enable good people to safely do good work and feel valued.

Establish relationships – Be seen and heard listening and speaking to people about safety (on the floor).

  • Make it truly safe for people to express their doubts and differing opinions without fear of retribution.
  • Get to know people both from a work and non-work perspective.
  • Help them see how getting hurt on the job will impact the people and things they care the most about in life.
  • Set the “relationship standard” for one’s direct reports by being seen and heard listening and speaking to people in their work place.

Make it personal and use your influence – As a leader, you have a tremendous amount of influence. More than you probably realize. People pay attention to everything you say, do and make important. Use that influence make safety change!

  • Speak often to people about safety and talk about what it means to you personally.
  • Describe the future in a way that makes being injury-free seem possible.
  • Use other WestRock sites as examples. “If they can do it, so can we!”
  • Set the example by discussing things you will personally do to help the site improve, and use clear examples of what others can do.
  • Use your influence to motivate, inspire, and challenge people to improve!

Set the tone

  • Start all meetings with safety.
  • This should not simply be a discussion of the lagging indicators or recent incidents.
  • Talk about the status of proactive safety actions taking place and what each person can do to help improve.

Demonstrate a bias for action and hold people accountable – Demonstrate a sense of urgency and energy in driving safety results.

  • Do your part to drive safety actions to closure.
  • “Stop and fix” whenever safety concerns are observed.
  • Develop, track, and discuss leading safety indicators
  • Employee engagement, completion of safety improvement tasks, etc.
  • Review open/closed actions from prior safety audits, employee concerns, etc.
  • Review the status of the site’s annual safety plan and hold people accountable for their part.
  • Surface potential concerns doubts or breakdowns by demonstrating, with your questions and responses, that it is safe to raise issues and that you will respond or act thoughtfully and decisively.

Recognize safe choices

  • Provide timely, sincere, positive feedback when you see safe working behavior.
  • Be seen and heard expressing your appreciation and regard for accomplishments in safety. Turn results into accomplishments by making it clear how they make possible a zero-injury workplace.

Question the acceptability of risk

Care & inquire

Share your observation and express your concern about the injury potential.

  • Does the employee perceive the risk similarly?
  • Is the risk addressed by a safe operating procedure or JHA?
  • If the risk is not addressed by a JHA, can the person demonstrate understanding and application of hazard recognition, assessment, and control?
  • Look for jobs or tasks being done differently and ask why?

Question the system – When you are discussing a safety shortcoming (physical condition, behavior, process), avoid falling into the “blame and train” trap where all we do is assign fault and re-train the people involved. Instead, question what part of our safety management system failed and how will we fix it.

  • If an employee did something that we believe was unsafe, ask yourself WHY they would have done this.
  • Put yourself in their position.
  • Try to understand things from their perspective.
  • What were they experiencing at that exact moment (for example, were they being rushed?)
  • Have unsafe actions and conditions found their way into the norm and become common practice?

It is only when we understand the true root causes of our safety failures that we will be able to implement sustainable corrective actions.

  • Establish ownership of any next steps. Follow through is critical.
  • Express thanks and appreciation for the insight and / or action provided.

Encourage peer feedback

  • Messages from peers are often more powerful than the same message from leadership.
  • They contribute to alignment about “what’s really important ” or “the way we do things around here.”
  • We build a culture faster, or strengthen it, by enrolling more people in providing feedback to each other.
  • Begin by seeking out and engaging the most respected employees at the site.
  • Once they are onboard and modeling the correct way, others will follow.

Assess your effectiveness

Debrief the conversation. You can do this for yourself if the discussion was just between you and an employee, or with another leader, if one was present to hear the discussion and could give you feedback. Questions to ask:

  • What message did I want to convey?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how effective do I feel I was in conveying the message?
  • What do I think the employee will remember about the discussion two hours from now? Tomorrow? Next week?
  • If I feel the conversation was not effective, how could I do a better job in a similar situation in the future?
  • Should I have a follow-up discussion with the employee?

Questions for leaders not based at the site

For leaders who are not normally based out of the facility, here are some additional questions to consider asking:

1. Show me your current year’s safety improvement plan and let’s discuss the status.

    • What are your critical focus areas in safety this year? 

2. What are your most frequent type of injuries?

    • What proactive steps are you taking to eliminate these?

3. Show your last Safety Management System self-assessment.

    • What are we doing to progress or what topics are we focused on trying to improve faster? 

4. How are your employee engagement efforts, for safety, coming along?

    • Show me your list of qualifying activities.
    • What percent of engagement have you reached monthly? 

5. Tell me about your safety observation program.

    • What format are you using?
    • Who is conducting these observations (just supervisors or all employees)?
    • How often are they done?
    • Are we looking at ALL tasks performed throughout the facility vs. just the more obvious ones?
    • Do we give feedback / coaching at the end of each one?
    • Are we using the data for predictive analysis? 

6. Tell me about your Safety Committee (NOTE: If you have the opportunity, meet with the committee to show your support and better understand what they are doing).

    • Who makes up the committee?
    • How often do they meet?
    • What proactive tasks are they working on?
    • Do you get the sense they are making a difference or is it just a gripe session?

You will most likely have additional methods for performing quality safety observations and delivering key messages effectively, as we all have our own style, but I trust this article has provided you with some additional points to consider that will make you an even more effective safety leader.

Ok…what are we waiting for…it’s time to get out on the floor!

Let’s talk safety!

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