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Industry leader interviews covering safety, 5S, Lean, Six Sigma and continuous improvement topics. 30-minute podcasts on PPE, software, tools, GHS labeling and more. Rich library of safety-related content.

Myths Of Behavior Observation Safety

Behavior observation means workers watch out for each other. Safety expert Marc McClure shatters myths, tells of reducing incidents with his staff by 80 percent.

Marc manages 350 people as Divisional Safety Manager at electrical contractor IES Commercial & Industrial in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Marc dispels these fables in this podcast:

Myth: “Behavior observation is about placing blame.”

Myth: “I can’t use stop-work because the whole job would shut down.”

Myth: “Observation process is just about observation.”

Myth: “Not all of your safety data is good data.”

Myth: “With observation, people don’t make mistakes.”

Marc previously was Program Leader for Procter & Gamble. He credits Richard Peterson and Scott Lassila as mentors.


Brandon Nys: Welcome to Safety Experts Talk. Visit our website at

(intro music)

Marc McClure: I believe that, used correctly, Behavior Observation Safety is the most effective and cheapest tool of our safety toolbox to help us prevent injuries.

Dan Clark: Many myths are swirling around the topic of Behavior Observation Safety. These myths point companies, managers and employees down the wrong road when starting a safety program.

Hi there, I’m Dan Clark. Today, we’re talking with Marc McClure, Divisional Safety Manager at IES Commercial & Industrial in Grand Island, Nebraska. Marc has spoken at conferences on Behavior Observation Safety and knows the topic well. Hello, Marc!

Marc: How are you doing today, Dan?

Dan: I’m well. IES Commercial & Industrial is one of America’s big electrical contractors there. How many people are you in charge of?

Marc: We have 350 people here working out of my division.

Dan: Wow. That’s a lot of observational safety.

Marc: It is.

Dan: Before IES you were Program Leader for Procter & Gamble making pet food in Nebraska and that’s where you began your behavior safety programs.

Marc: Yes, it is, Dan. I originally … I was with the IAMS pet food company and IAMS was acquired by Procter & Gamble. I tell people I grew up in the safety process at Procter & Gamble.

Dan: Ah, OK. I saw in your LinkedIn profile picture you’re wearing a cowboy hat.

Marc: I am.

Dan: Do you have one of those hard hat cowboy hats and, if so, how do they work?

Marc: Well, I don’t. I have a friend that has one. I’m kind of more of the approach in safety where I want to be just like everybody else. I believe that safety should be part of the process, not in addition to. So I don’t wear a cowboy safety hat at work. I just wear a regular hard hat like the rest of my guys. But I have been known to ride a couple of horses at times and I do wear a cowboy hat a lot.

Dan: Well, that’s good. Tell us what is Behavior Observation Safety.

Marc: The behavior observation process is about choosing the behaviors that you know lead to putting you in a risky situation — a concerned situation — working to identify what those are and then working with your employees to develop the ability to observe that during the work process and give each other immediate feedback.

I believe that, used correctly, Behavior Observation Safety is the most effective and cheapest tool of our safety toolbox to help us prevent injuries. Used correctly, we should never know how many incidents it helps us prevent because it’s the step before the incident. If we intervene with someone before everything goes wrong — observing the behavior, noticing what’s at risk or the concern and then giving that employee immediate feedback — we can prevent situations that we can get ourselves placed into.

I think one of the biggest things that has to happen in an observation process is correctly identifying behaviors that get you in trouble.

Dan: Correctly identifying behaviors that get you in trouble.

Marc: Yes. People go wrong with an observation process when they begin … I call it the shotgun approach. “We’re going to just pick everything that’s ever got us hurt and we’re going to put the list a piece of paper and we’re going to tell people to observe it.”

And what they tell people is “Our people are getting hurt by cutting their hand.” So they write down on the sheet, “cutting hands.” “And they’re not wearing their PPE.” So they write that, “not wearing gloves.” And then, of course, there’s the great one of housekeeping. Someone tripped over a hose, so they’ll write that “hoses on the floor.”

A lot of time, Dan, rather than identifying a behavior, they’re telling us about a condition.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: When go to I look for a condition, all I’m doing is doing a worksite inspection rather than observing what’s happening.

So, I like to peel the onion back another layer and say “What were we doing what we got our hand cut? Did we place ourselves in the line of fire? Did we not use the right PPE at the right time?”

And I try to choose those type of things that I can then put into a behavior, rather than just telling someone to look for a condition. I want you to look for employees that are placing themselves in the line of fire. I want you to be able to observe yourself where you’ve placed your body part in the line of fire.

I’m also a big believer in not trying to shotgun and cure everything at once. I think our human psyche is designed more for us to focus on just 2, 3, 4 items at a time.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: So I like to use focused improvement to pick out an item and get it to where it goes from being a concern behavior — that we do a lot of times. It may not get us hurt but we do it enough that I’ve got a big concern that it will get us hurt. And I like to try to fix it by the power of the feedback. We see it being done incorrectly we give feedback on that. The feedback can be as simple as “Whoa, wait a minute. Put your safety glasses on before we go in this room.”

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: Or “Buckle your seat belt before we get the vehicle rolling down the highway.”

Or, if they are doing it right, say “Great job! Thank you.” Make sure that people know that we’re reinforcing what we really want to have happen, because — just like you and I — neither of us like to hear all of our bad things all the time. It always does well for us to involve people and encourage feedback by noticing the things that we do well.

One of the things and one of the myths of observation safety is that it’s all about finding what’s wrong and placing blame on someone. It’s the employees fault that lets management off the hook. And that is so wrong because 90 to 95 percent of the time we’re probably doing it right.

Dan: Hmm.

Marc: It becomes harder for us to notice that we’re doing it right because we, kind of, become immune to it — conditioned to it — because we do it that way. But if we take the time to notice that it’s being done right and reinforce it in people, people become bought into the system. “You’re not picking on me. You’re telling me when I do it right, so now I don’t mind so much when you point out something I’m not doing correctly.”

Dan: Is every worker a safety observer in your system or is it just the safety managers and supervisors?

Marc: No, it’s everyone and it really needs to be everyone. I work to try to create a safety culture of what I call “Got your back.”

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: I want everybody to be involved so every employee knows that we have their best interest at heart. By “everyone,” I don’t mean just myself or management. But I mean the whole company.

We’re a specialized kind of company. We’re electricians, an electrical contractor. So, you know, we do have a finite amount of people that we can draw into the workforce and we need to take care of who we have because, you know, it’s not that easy getting help every day. So, I want everybody involved. I want everybody to have a piece in the game here to help keep us all safe.

The other side of it is, a lot of times, the safety manager or the supervisor doesn’t see every behavior that’s done out there on a jobsite every day.

Dan: So, Marc, when you have employees that are coworkers reminding each other about safety issues, do some reject that because “Hey, you’re not my supervisor. I’m going to do it my way.”

Marc: Yeah, you will get that attitude. And it’s an attitude that, number one, it’s out there so you have to be able to identify it and you have to acknowledge it. And then you have to show everyone where the buy-in really happens.

I like to put the accountability with the employees for each other. The reason for that is once I involve management … if we have some type of an incident and something’s gone wrong, everybody wants to point a finger say that there’s some blame here.

Dan: Sure.

Marc: One of the things that I try to do with the system is to bring out that out of the process by giving you and myself, if we were coworkers, the ability to give each other feedback and receive feedback and be accountable to each other. Because what I hear a lot of times is “I don’t want a safety program with a knee-jerk reaction. It can’t be all about discipline.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: That’s very, very true. But the only way that you can really make that work is to have some accountability between the workers. Because, otherwise, we get people left out there on an island.

There are times, I mean, we certainly have hired people that “No,” they don’t want to take feedback. They don’t want to give feedback. They don’t want to receive feedback. But usually that isn’t really only a problem for safety. That usually indicates you’ve got, probably, some problems with your productivity and quality too. Because if they’re not willing to participate and help each other to be safe, they’ve probably got some work habits that you’re not be real happy with also.

Dan: They don’t sound like team members, do they?

Marc: No, no, they don’t. And we usually can identify that pretty quick by using the process. One of things I talk about, Dan, is what you get when you have the mature process — and that’s exactly it — is identifying other problems in your system that go beyond safety.

Dan: Well, let’s go through a workplace example. Let’s say the coworker — the safety observer — sees another worker doing something unsafe. What should they do? Do they actually have the authority to stop a work process?

Marc: Yes, yes. We use our stop-work. We promote that. We put it on our hard hats and we make sure that it’s touched on about 8 to 10 different times in our daylong orientation to make sure everyone knows.

There’s a couple of things about stop-work that people get wrong and, again, this becomes one of the myths of observation safety. I’ve had people tell me “I can’t use stop-work because the whole job would shut down. The boss has got to drive out a hundred miles …”

Dan: (laughs)

Marc: “… and he’s got to give his OK to restart the job.”
OK, what you just described to me is probably more of a stand-down and not a stop-work.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: Number one, I don’t want you to associate that the boss driving out here to restart a job is a bad thing because, in my situation, our boss is going to thank you for what you did.

But stop-work is more about the immediate. It can be as simple as saying to each other “Hey, hold it. Let’s look at the JSA one more time, make sure we’re all on the same page.” “Hey, we’re going to lift this object together on “three”. When I say “three”, we’ll lift together.”

Those kind of moments is what I consider stop-work. Did we just prevent an injury? Well, I don’t know. But if you and I were lifting something together and you were wondering if I meant when I said “three,” on “three,” when I get to “three,” and we both lift at different moments, I could end up dropping something on you. I could end up getting strained because I was lifting early. If everybody just lifts together, will we will never know if we just prevented an injury or not.

Dan: Right, and those are simple things too. I mean, those are not life-threatening issues that you just talked about.

Marc: No.

Dan: That’s just a simple, minor injury that you prevented.

Marc: Correct. And another thing, Dan, is I don’t always like to use the term “unsafe” all the time because I like to use the term “concerned.”

Dan: Concerned.

Marc: You just had a concern.

Dan: OK.

Marc: The reason I use that term rather than saying “unsafe” is you could be the 20 year employee that’s done it a thousand times and you’re working a little bit faster than what I’m capable as being the new guy on the crew. So, am I looking at something you’re doing unsafe? Maybe, maybe not. But I know I’m concerned about it.

So, rather than approach you and say “Hey, I think you’re doing that unsafe,” I can bring it up to you as “Hey, I have a concern.” This gives you the opportunity as the more experienced employee to be able to coach me. “No, this is fine. Here’s what I’m doing. Trust me, you know, five years from now you’re going to have the skill and experience, the hand dexterity to perform this task just as fast as I am.” “Oh OK.” And now we go back to work.

Give and receive feedback.

Again, it gave us an opportunity to boost another employee’s confidence, number one, in being able to give and receive feedback. But, number two, the older employee’s now thinking “Hey, maybe this kid isn’t so bad. He’s noticing something here. Maybe I should be working with him a little bit closer because he’s going to end up being here awhile.

Dan: So the process has been stopped. A coworker is asked to stop a process. What questions are asked and what’s resolved when this process stops?

Marc: We talk about why we stopped it. What is our concern? “Hey, put your safety glasses on BEFORE we go through this door.” “Put your hearing protection in NOW, before we go in this other room where you’re going to be exposed.” That’s the simple ones that happen all the time.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: It gives you a coaching moment if someone’s just not sure or clear on how we’re going to proceed with the task.

Dan: OK.

Marc: You hear a lot of times, Dan, when you have something go wrong people will say “People need to be more aware.”

Dan: Yeah.

Marc: Well, I’m not certain I know how to teach awareness all the time. But if you have the ability to just stop the process, it will make you more aware and focused on what we’re stopping for.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: “Hey is this really the right way to lift this?” “Yes, and here’s why … oh, no. Hey, you’re right. Let’s get some better footing before we don this.”

Simple things like that that just happen between people. It doesn’t have to be long and drawn out. It happens. Sometimes it’s very courteous, sometimes it’s not, but we’ll have follow-up to make sure that nobody’s really offended by it.

Dan: Oh, OK good.

Marc: It’s a non-blame game is what I’m looking for.

Dan: Well, after that has been resolved, next do you do behavior observation cards in your company?

Marc: We have an observation sheet that we list and we go through. We’re actually doing this right now. Part of our process annually is we review our near miss, first aid, property damage, recordable injury data and we look at what was the root cause of the behavior.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: And we find in our world that the ones we want to continue to work on is:

— Placing bodies in the line of fire (placing body parts line of fire).
— Using force in a safe way.
— Rushing.
— Wearing the correct PPE when it’s necessary.

And then we have one and it is one that we have fixed but I’m going to tell you why I keep it on here.

— It’s wearing seat belts.

Dan: Hmm. Mm-hm.

Marc: And I am 99 percent good on that one and I haven’t had anything for five years. But five years ago we had an employee that had been with us quite a while. He was a very well-liked employee. And it was after work so this wasn’t a work-related injury. But we had an employee that was killed in a car accident who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

Dan: Oh.

Marc: And at the funeral and after the funeral we all discussed. We went to pick up his company truck and we found the seat belt hooked behind him so the buzzer wouldn’t go off.

Dan: Oh no.

Marc: Talked to his immediate foreman. He knew this employee didn’t wear a seatbelt. Talked to employees that road in the vehicle with him and they told me the same story. “No, he never wore his seat belt. In fact he encouraged us to just hook ours behind us so they didn’t buzz either.

And this employee was 33 years old and left behind a wife and two small children.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: And I use this as a teaching moment. Here is the perfect example of where an intervention could have saved a life. If we would’ve done more to encourage him, I mean, we actually have a safety policy that says “you wear a seatbelt company vehicles.”

Dan: Sure.

Marc: And no one made an intervention with this employee to say “Wear your seatbelt.”

And I’m just guessing right now, but I probably have that observed 600 to 700 times in the past year. It’s probably only been observed three or four times where it was a concerned behavior. Where somebody had to say to someone “Hook your seatbelt up.” But I leave that one on there as a reminder to what we could have done and what we should have done. Because after it happened, as I talked to all of these of this employee’s friends within the company, I talked to his supervisor who was one of the first to know about the incident and had to call and tell this man’s wife.

Dan: Yeah.

Marc: I use this one as an example of “Boy, we’re better than this and we should’ve intervened on this one. We should have been using our ability to give and receive feedback to each other to get this employee to change his behavior before it was too late.”

So, we keep this one on there and every year we talk about it. We talk about whether or not it’s one we want to take off. But we always share this story with the employees that haven’t heard it that have joined us since we rolled this out a year ago again and renewed it. And we use this to show people that this conquers another myth of observation safety. It is more than just common sense.

Dan: I can see how, now, if someone in your organization isn’t wearing a seatbelt it isn’t just going to be one of your employees that recommends that they buckle up. It’s going to be everybody.

Marc: It is. It truly is. And another myth that I’ve always tried to dispel is observation process isn’t just about the observation. It’s also about that feedback and the importance. This is one that really drives that one home.

Dan: Sure. What do you do with those at the end of the year? Do you just go through all of those, put them in a computer? How do you calculate the data on those sheets?

Marc: So, the sheets are gathered together at the end of the day and then this becomes tomorrow’s little safety huddle for the foreman on that project.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: He’s able to look at the four or five sheets he’s collected from his crew from the day before and talk about what was done. And this gives him that opportunity to, once more, reinforce what’s been done well, and talk to the grumpy guy that really isn’t good at receiving feedback and playing with us. We’re going to coach him about that now.

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc: We’re also going to coach the guy that’s a little timid about speaking up and talking about what he saw. But we make it right there so everybody knows that we’re not talking blame.

One of the things I tell all of my people up front with my process is “I will never use my process to implement any type of discipline.” I want my process to be about the coaching and have the accountability right there.

So, now we’re going to be able to sit here and talk. And Dan, you’re going to be able to say “Well I observed Marc yesterday and he was standing on the ladder backwards.

Dan: (laughs)

Marc: OK now, this foreman looks at me and “Well, why?” Well, I can either say “Hey, I had a brain fade and just did this.” or “I, ah, I was in a hurry. Yes, I know I did wrong but I was in a hurry.” And I’m trying to justify what I was doing. We bring that up and we just talk about it.

We may find out that the reason I was on the ladder backwards is because it didn’t have the right ladder. Maybe I needed a taller ladder. Maybe I needed a platform ladder. But it gives us the opportunity to, right now, intervene while it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind and help make a solution to it. Either “Hey, Marc. Really can’t have you standing on the ladder backwards. You know that that’s not allowed. You know that leads to injury. Let’s be a little bit more heads-up.”

If it happens again now my trend is probably saying “Marc doesn’t want to listen to us.”

Dan: (laughs)

Marc: So now maybe we have to intervene in another way. But it gives us the opportunity to be accountable to each other right there.

And I find, Dan, you know, I mean I have 350 people, so I don’t get to know every one of those employees the way I should and want to. But you and the guy on the job site are going to get to know each other that way, and you could probably hold each other accountable in a higher standard than I can.

So, we use the form there. The form them comes to me and I compile some weekly numbers to just kind of let people know what trend is looking like. Maybe we’ll see that we had six or eight interventions that were concerned about how we were using force. So then we’ll use that to talk about in our weekly safety calls and our Monday morning meetings…

Dan: Mm-hm.

Marc:… to dive a little deeper into that and what’s happening. It gives us the opportunity to use this as a leading indicator rather than a lagging indicator and be more proactive.

Dan: Wow, that is fantastic because you’re using this stuff daily, weekly and not waiting ‘till the end of the quarter or year to compile all the data. Some companies have problems with pencil whipping.

Marc: Sure.

Dan: Did you ever have a problem with people just, kind of, filling them out rote?

Marc: Oh yes. Yes and that again that becomes part of the myth “Not all of your data is good data.”

Dan: Sure.

Marc: All of your data is good data. Even bad data tells you something. It’s telling you you may have not done a good enough job teaching people and how and you want the process to be used. And that comes back on me. I may not like to hear that kind of feedback either, but it’s feedback that I need.

One of the things, Dan, that we really work on with this is trying to get feedback daily. When I took over six and a half years ago here at IES, I put out a survey to everybody and I asked the question “Have you given or received safety feedback last seven days?” About 80 percent of the people told me no. So I knew that was something that we really needed to work on.

Today, on a weekly basis, 90 to 95 percent of our people will tell you they’ve given and received feedback in the last week.

Dan: Wow.

Marc: The people that haven’t are usually my service personnel or my guys that are the lone worker on the one job that’s doing a few things this week and waiting for a crew to come next week for a big push.

We get that down to a daily and I tell people this in the mornings when I’m on a jobsite: “All is I need you to do for me is get me the next five hours. It’s 7 o’clock and we’re going to go to work. I need you for five hours. For the next five hours want you to concentrate and focus on yourself and on your coworkers on these behaviors that get us hurt: placing ourselves in the line of fire; using force in an unsafe way; rushing; not wearing the PPE correctly when we should. Concentrate on those things for me and at noon we’ll regroup, talk about it for five minutes and we’ll go again for five hours.

Dan: Wow, you’re a football coach.

Marc: Well by getting that feedback to the immediate level, Dan, then that’s when I can find out if we’re pencil whipping or not.

Dan: I think that’s just a fantastic bedside manner that you have on a job site and it’s too bad that you can’t be at every job site every day. But it sounds like you’re a good leader and that you’re leading your foremen and your other workers to behave in that same way toward their coworkers.

Marc: The human emotion is “We take care of our own.” It’s always been there in us. And if we just bring that out a little bit and we can show people that pencil whipping doesn’t help us.

We’re not perfect. We still have incidents.

And another myth that needs to be dispelled when you do observation safety, and always tell people this one in complete confidence. And don’t want you telling my bosses this one.

Dan: (laughs)

Marc: I don’t need them to know this one. But the truth is: people make mistakes.

Dan: (laughs)

Marc: People will make mistakes. Sometimes, no matter how good you design the process, people will make a mistake. We’re going to forget. We are going to get rushed. We will rush ourselves.

I had a young man who suffered a pretty serious cut — eight stitches — one time. “What happened here?” And he told me. He said “I felt pressure to get this done.”

“Well, who pressured you? Because we talked your superintendent and he said he told you he had ‘til tomorrow.”

He said “I pressured myself.”

Dan: Oh.

Marc: He said “I just thought I should have this task completed in about 10 to 15 minutes even though I knew I had a couple of hours to get it done.

Dan: Wow.

Marc: That’s something that I really … I’m not able to coach that on every given day, every given minute. So, the best I can do is encourage you and your coworkers to be able to give and receive feedback all the time so that you don’t get yourself in that type of a mistake.

Dan: How did you get your safety program, your behavior observation program? Is this through OSHA or did you create your own and where can people go to get a program like yours?

Marc: Mine is all homegrown. I will tell you right now I’ll give lots of credit to lots of different people. My process goes back to the early 1980s. Richard Peterson is one of the men that worked at Proctor & Gamble and really did a lot of work on it. And I’ve just try to make it about what we do. I don’t really like canned programs. There’s a lot of great work out there, don’t get me wrong — BST; Dr. Geller; Safe Start. They all do wonderful things. I’ve tried to tailor this one to be what I want. I’m a little bit grumpy that way. I’m at the point life in where I don’t like to see people hurt, so …

Dan: (laughs)

Marc: I’m going to try some different things and new things all the time to keep it fresh.

But you can learn a lot about the observation process. I just I caution people to remember it’s not a silver bullet and it’s a process. It’s a journey. It just doesn’t come out of the can and fit everybody and work from day one. You have to work it too.

Dan: Well, if you were a first-time safety manager and you had no idea where to go for a behavior observation program, would you start with, say, VPP or any other of the free public sources?

Marc: Yes, yes. I definitely would. One of things I’ll tell everybody is be involved, work with your local safety councils, go to meetings of the different OSHA programs — state and national programs. Talk to people that have already been there. It makes it a lot easier to learn from others’ mistakes.

I tell everybody you’re more than welcome to come see what I have and you can shamelessly borrow anything I’ve got, but I’m going to forewarn you: What you see with me may not actually work with you. It’s going to require some tailoring and some work on your own but everybody’s been more than happy to share with me ideas and things, and VPP and safety councils are great resource.

Dan: Well, Marc this has been just a fantastic look at behavior observation.

Marc: Well, I’m glad, I’m glad.

Dan: Any final thoughts on Behavior Observation Safety.

Marc: My own personal experience and the companies I’ve been with — Procter & Gamble and IES — I’ve seen a decrease in incidents. And I’m not just talking recordable injuries but in incidents by about 80 percent that I will attribute to the use of an observation safety process.

Dan: Well, thank you Marc. I really appreciate your time.

Marc: You bet Dan.

Dan: Our guest has been Marc McClure, Divisional Safety Manager at IES Commercial & Industrial in Grand Island, Nebraska. Thanks for joining us. I’m Dan Clark.

(outro music with voice over)

Brandon: Thank you for joining us on Safety Experts Talk. If you have suggestions for future podcasts, send them to For more safety experts talking about safety news, OSHA regulations, PPE, lean, 5S, or Continuous Improvement, go to


Marc McClure image © 2010 Marc McClure; electrical workers images by PEO ACWA; workers in sunglasses image by U.S. Dept Of Energy

Additional Resources