Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Who Doesn’t Love More Paperwork? – Procedures, Checklists and Safety

Ok, so obviously the title was a little tongue-in-cheek. Let’s face it – most of the time procedures and checklists are seen as a necessary evil in our workplaces. We have significant risks we face every day and there’s clearly a right way and a wrong way to protect others and ourselves from those risks. After all, how else can we ensure that we control people’s behavior in a way that ensures they do the things they need to do to be safe?

Stop there for a second. How many faulty assumptions can we count in that first paragraph? We lost count, there was so many. Here’s just a few:
  • Procedures and checklists…are…a necessary evil.” Sure there sometimes we have to have a procedure or a checklist (sometimes called a “permit”) for the purposes of a regulation or a standard we have to meet, but often those piles of procedures we have in our workplaces are there because we chose to have them there – i.e. they are not required. If we are choosing to have procedures and checklists that means we can also choose to not have them.
  • There’s clearly a right way and a wrong way to protect others and ourselves…” Again, there may be times when this is true, but often it is not. Most of the time there are multiple “safe” ways to do a job. In fact, if we only provide people with one way to do the job they may be faced with a risk that wasn’t considered in the procedure and then be forced to make the decision between doing the job safely or following the “safe” procedure.
  • How else can we ensure that we control people’s behavior…” The assumption in this statement is that people don’t want to be safe and therefore we have to protect them from themselves. This is just flat out wrong. People have created safety throughout history long before the safety profession existed. Sure it wasn’t perfect, but the idea we’re getting at here is that there’s a foundation of motivation and creativity deep down in each person that we might be able to tap into.

Now, don’t get us wrong here – we’re not saying that we need to do away with all procedures and checklists. We’re just saying we need to rethink why we have them. Do they actually add value to employee safety or do we only have them to protect us from regulators – so we can say “I told you so” to the employees after something bad happened?

How can we make procedures and checklists value added rather than just more paperwork? Well, each situation is a little different, but here’s some ideas on when and how to develop and use procedures and checklists:
  1. Get Employees Involved. This is critical. Procedures and checklists done in isolation are often missing key information about how work is actually performed. This can lead to employees ignoring the procedure and being exposed to risks as a result. Employees are not the enemy of safety. They are often the best resource we have. It takes time and trust, but get them involved and you’ll be shocked at the results.
  2. Once you have a good understanding of what the work to be done is, are there job steps, tools, etc. that are (a) easily forgotten or missed, and (b) are either safety critical or critical for other purposes (e.g. quality, regulatory compliance, productivity, etc.). These are ripe for a procedure and/or checklist.
  3. Once you’ve developed the procedure or checklist, test it out with employees who actually do the work. Get their honest feedback about it and, if possible, observe them doing the job with the new procedure or checklist. If they report or you observe problems, go back to the drawing board. Don’t force your procedure or checklist on the employees if it doesn’t work. Sometimes nothing is better than a partial fix, because partial fixes can lead to a false sense of security. Use the momentum you have to get it right.
  4. Train all affected employees (including supervisors) on the new procedure or checklist. The training should be a discussion about the need for the change and how the change will help them achieve success better than older methods, not a one-sided lecture on how you know how to do their jobs better than they do.
  5. Follow-up. Take additional time in the months after roll-out to observe different crews with the new procedure and checklist to see how it’s working and to get their feedback. Make adjustments as necessary. If you observe violations your first instinct should be to investigate why, not to blame the employee.


Imagine a world where we no longer have to be the safety cop, chasing down and punishing every procedure or checklist violation. Imagine a world where employees actually want to use the procedures and checklists. Why? Because they came up with them and therefore they know how the checklist not only makes them safe, but how it works with the job they are trying to do. That integration of safety and getting the job done is the key and it’s all possible if we only change our perspective from workers as the problem that must be controlled, to one where the workers are a safety resource. 

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