An Inspection by Any Other Name

I’m often asked by people both inside and outside the safety discipline the difference between an audit and a safety inspection. An audit is typically annual (or semi-annual) activity conducted by safety professionals to ensure compliance with safety regulations and internal policies. An auditor typically has a check list of items that need to be verified or assessed, and audits are usually done by either an internal safety professional or an external governmental agency. Audits are reactive. Audits are a “gotcha” that ostensibly is performed so that the safety professional—whether an internal department or OSHA, the Minister of Labour, or some other governmental agency—can coach the organization.  In fact most audits result in negative consequences and for the most part they are feared and detested, and in the majority of the those cases rightfully so.

Safety inspections are regular, proactive activities that are designed to identify workplace hazards and contain/correct them before an individual gets hurt. Safety inspections are conducted by first line supervisors and/or representation (in Union environments) and use a problem-solving, failure-mode (anticipating what could go wrong) approach. Inspections are proactive. The problem with safety inspections is no matter what you call them (and there are myriad names for essentially the same activity) people associate safety inspections with some negative outcome like those associated with audits.  The result is a well-intentioned buy largely simple minded attempt to rebrand the safety inspection to take away the sting associated with it.

In healthcare, Safety Rounding is growing in popularity.  Safety Rounds are safety inspections that are adapted for use in matrix organizations. Like Safety Inspections, Safety Rounds are regular, proactive walk-thrus, but instead of first-line supervision conducting the rounds, volunteers take on the responsibility in addition to their normal jobs. The goal of a Safety Round is the same as that of a Safety Inspection, but Safety Rounds focus parallel the “Environment of Care” requirements of the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) audits. Unfortunately, the volunteer brigades tend to attract gung-ho staffers who don’t have much to do or who are shirking their core responsibilities in favor of the new assignment.  But even the best intentioned volunteers lack the authority to hold the people responsible for getting hazards corrected and in a short time the volunteers lose interest, become frustrated, or otherwise become ineffective.  I’ve seen the same thing happen in lean implementations where 5S teams were staffed by volunteers; without the power to force the first line supervisor to correct issues the same items are identified week after week, month after month.

But Safety Rounds aren’t without value.  In fact, in places where the manager that owns the area is held accountable, Safety Rounds can be extremely effective.  Safety Rounds tend to be more holistic than Safety Inspections and often those conducting Safety Rounds will ask hospital staff questions to determine the effectiveness of required safety training.  Safety Rounds may well be tied to Patient Safety, and when it is, the effectiveness tends to increase expontentially.

In Lean Manufacturing environments (which believe it or not aren’t restricted to manufacturing these days) Safety Inspections can be embedded into Layered Process Audits.  from 2008 to 2009 I spent one week a month for 15 months working with a manufacturer in Mexico to completely integrate safety into their manufacturing operating system.  One of the major breakthroughs that we made was the integration of the safety inspection into a layered process audit.  This had a profound impact on the effectiveness of the safety inspection because a) it met the requirement that a Layered Process Audit be conducted weekly and b) it documented all the process flaws into a database that made it easy for maintenance (or other departments) to correct the flaws.

Perhaps the most useless bastardization of a safety inspection is the safety observations.  Safety observations are based on the belief that if a supervisor watches someone working he or she can identify unsafe work practices and provide feedback to the worker on how to work more safely.  This practice overlooks many scientific principles that make it an expensive waste of time.  For starters safety observations assume that workers perform their tasks the same way every time they do their jobs and that the act of being observe will not alter the worker’s performance in any way.  Years ago I worked in an automobile factory assembling seats.  Once a year the engineers would do a time study where they would come and watch each operator work and count the steps involved in a given job.  Knowing that the engineers were likely to heap as much work as they possibly could on a job the operators would routinely add steps, slow their pace, and other wise queer the batter by providing the observer skewed data.  But even in cases where operators are not trying to confuse the results, the fact that their bosses are watching over their shoulders are likely to make the operators take more time to do their jobs and work more safely.  Unless an organization intends to pay someone to watch every operator every moment of every day, it’s not likely that the observations will bear much fruit and it’s highly likely that they will add costs and ignore variation in human behavior.

Some organizations have taken to calling the safety inspection a safety tour, and in so doing soften the stigma of an inspection.  I suppose that if renaming the activity makes it less threatening then we should by all means rename it.  My personal preference is to call it a Process Integrity Analysis, and I would not limit it to safety.  We have to do a better job integrating safety into the work processes, and stop calling safety out as a separate and discrete activity.  A Process Integrity Analysis should include analysis of process capability and reliability, quality, total productive maintenance, 5S, and Job Safety Analysis.  By examining a process holistically an organization can lower injuries, boost productivity, and increase quality.  If we position the “Safety Inspection” as just another element of process improvement Operations will stop viewing safety as an interruption of their jobs and start treating it as a critical discipline that drives productivity.



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