With the annual arrival of National Safety Month in the U.S., safety professionals give much attention to workplace hazards and their controls and to formal safety training. That attention is appropriate, but National Safety Month is also a great opportunity for safety professionals to think beyond compliance-based safety training and to implement new methods of increasing operational learning that will lead to a safer and more successful workplace.

Operational learning is learning about how workers really work. Increasing your operational learning gives you a better sense of workplace hazards and of how workers work safely while addressing competing priorities with limited time and resources. It also gives you a better chance of identifying any drift toward unsafe practices that might lead to an incident.

To increase operational learning, you’ll need three prerequisites in place. First, you’ll need to want to do it. If you aren’t willing to try, you won’t learn as much. Second, you’ll need the trust of workers if you want them to truly share with you. Finally, you’ll need great communication skills and, in particular, you’ll need to know how to ask questions and how to listen to workers.

One of the first methods of increasing operational learning (and, therefore, safety) is to study normal work – meaning, work as it’s normally performed. The best way to do so is to ask workers what they do at work and to listen. You can talk with workers about routine jobs they do all the time or for non-routine work that comes up infrequently. The key is to ask questions about how they do the job and then to listen.

In having these conversations, you’ll probably find there’s a difference between “work as planned” (in your standard operating procedures) and “work as performed” during real work. Studying the difference between the two by asking workers why they depart from work as planned will allow you to learn much about your workplace, recognize adjustments workers make to complete the job under varying conditions, identify causes of success at work and amplify them, and keep an eye out for unknown or unanticipated hazards.

Another good way to learn about work as it’s really performed is to have small team discussions immediately before the job is begun. One method you can use is a before action review (BAR). When conducting a BAR, discuss the following questions:

  • What result are we aiming for?
  • How do we measure success?
  • What challenges will we face?
  • What lessons did we learn the last time we did this?
  • What do we need to know that we don’t currently know?
  • What will make us successful?

A different technique for pre-task work is to hold a pre-mortem, in which the team predicts the most likely cause of failure and works backward in time to identify precursors and ways to avoid the failure (and complete the work safely).

Likewise, it’s useful to discuss the job as a team after the work is completed. A common model for doing so is the after action review (AAR). During an AAR, the team will discuss:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What did happen?
  • Was there a difference?
  • If there was a difference, why?
  • What worked and why?
  • What didn’t work and why?
  • What should we do differently next time?

You can also borrow several techniques from lean manufacturing to learn more from workers about how they perform their work. For example, conducting a 5S exercise is a great way to learn how they work, how they use tools and equipment, where the best place is to store tools and equipment, and which tools and equipment you can put into long-term storage or even discard. All of this information helps to make a cleaner, safer more efficient workplace. 5S is a structured exercise in which team members:

  • Sort items in the workplace, removing items that aren’t needed for current production needs.
  • Put each item in the best possible location, where it’s easy to access and use.
  • “Shine” the work area so it’s clean.
  • Create consistent, standardized work procedures that reflect what you’ve learned while sorting, setting in order and shining (while also acknowledging you’ll have to continually re-evaluate these standard work procedures).
  • Sustain this work, keeping the 5S effort going and implementing continuous improvement.

Other lean methods that will increase operational learning include:

  • Gemba walks, in which the safety professional walks around the work area, observes, asks workers questions about what they’re doing and why, and listens.
  • Value stream mapping, which brings together a team to map out your production processes, identify wastes and brainstorm improvements.
  • Kaizen events, in which a team meets to discuss a specific work process or area and brainstorm improvements.

One last consideration for improving operational learning has to do with near-incidents and incidents. For near-incidents (also called close calls, near-misses and/or near-hits), be sure to implement some form of near-miss reporting and follow up on those reports. Likewise, always investigate incidents, including injuries, illnesses, property damage and even product defects.

The classic way of approaching this task is to conduct a root cause analysis (RCA), which uses tools like a fishbone diagram and the “5 whys,” along with witness interviews, to identify one or more causes for the incident. A more recent alternative is to conduct a learning team exercise (this approach is often associated with Dr. Todd Conklin and his human and organizational performance approach to occupational safety). There are eight steps for conducting a learning team exercise:

  1. Hold an initial meeting with workers to discuss how they perform their work and/or what happened on the day of the incident. Don’t ask for solutions to the problem, and steer participants away from offering solutions themselves. This meeting should be dedicated solely to learning what normally happens and/or what happened that day.
  2. Take a break after the first session, ideally overnight, so everyone can reflect on and process what they’ve discussed and learned.
  3. Bring the same people together for a second session. Begin by reminding them what you discussed in the first session and asking if they have anything more to add.
  4. Ask them to identify what’s most important from the previous day’s discussion and why.
  5. Ask them to now propose solutions and prioritize the order in which to address problems and even which problems don’t need to be addressed.
  6. Try out small-scale solutions in a beta test format.
  7. Monitor and evaluate solutions. If they work, implement them on a larger scale.
  8. Create a process for telling stories about the problem and solution in order to share the new safety knowledge.

Implementing some or all of these processes can help you increase operational learning at your workplace. Doing so will create a safer and healthier workplace while also contributing to gains in efficiency and even innovation. If you take time during this year’s National Safety Month, while you’re considering controls and training, to implement more operational learning techniques, you and your workforce will benefit greatly.

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