Toolbox Talks: Same day, same compliance issues? Find the source of the sparks.


If your organization uses third-party safety oversight that is only focused on compliance issues, then you likely feel stuck in your own version of Groundhog Day.

Every day brings the same set of issues over and over: risky behaviors, improper PPE, Lockout-Tagout errors, driving accidents, procedure violations, and any number of personnel injuries from simply walking to working at heights.

Why do we see the same types of accidents and errors day in and day out? We know what’s going to happen tomorrow (because it happened yesterday and today), and yet we can’t seem to stop it.

Long story short: You’re spending all your time putting out fires, but never find and stop the source of the sparks.

Here’s how we end up in this never-ending loop of accidents and errors: The third-party safety oversight person, looking for compliance issues, discovers a worker operating a forklift without a spotter, as required by company policy.

They spring into action and inform forklift operator that they are out of compliance. Work is stopped and placed in a safe condition until a spotter can be located. The immediate danger is eliminated.

Hopefully, there is a system in place where the third-party safety oversight person can log the event for tracking and trending. At the end of the week a report comes out that shows three instances of forklift operations without a spotter. The responsible manager sends out an email to all the forklift operators reminding them of the spotter requirement and promises discipline for the next person not in compliance.

Crisis averted. The fire is out—until the next time, because we never determined the source of the sparks.

In the above scenario, we never determined what influenced the forklift operator’s behavior. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the typical third-party safety oversight is solely concerned with checking off compliance boxes. They are not trained to identify root causes and coach your personnel on human performance methods.

Second, managers are so busy they need to quickly resolve the issue and move on to the next fire—hence, the ominous email. As a result, we never find where the root cause lies.

Is it isolated to the individual’s own risk tolerance? Is it influenced by organizational factors? Is it a combination of the two? If the issue is the individual’s risk tolerance, the person was never challenged to look at their own culpability. They know why they took a risk but no one ever asked why. They were just told to get in compliance. They were never coached to question their own behavior.

If organizational factors are influencing risky behavior, we didn’t even come close to finding the source of the sparks. What if the requirement was not well communicated (after all there were three violations that week)? What if the manager was putting time-pressure on the workers to “get it done”? What if the spotter was pulled away for another job and the forklift operator was just going to wrap it up real quick? What if the spotter was never available but the operator didn’t want to sit around doing nothing for fear of looking lazy?

We never investigated and eliminated what encouraged risky behavior, so what do you think will happen when someone else is put in the same scenario? Do you think there is a pretty good chance that the next person with vague guidance, production pressures, and a lack of resources will make the same choice? Will that lack of compliance be met with the same “Why does this keep happening?” frustration?

Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So how do you get off the Groundhog Day safety cycle? Stop running around putting out compliance-based safety fires and get to what influenced the behavior—the source of the sparks.

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.