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Safety Review: What It Is and Why We Need It

By Gordon Dupont
Published: June 28, 2017 | Last updated: December 13, 2021
Key Takeaways

Regular safety reviews are an integral part of building a safety culture.

Source: Richard Wong / Dreamstime.com

Safety reviews are a vital part of a safety management system. Companies conduct these reviews to ensure that their safety policies are being followed and to determine whether those policies are effective.

Broadly, safety reviews involve a two-part process:

  • Examining the workplace for hazards that put the workers at risk
  • Assessing the effectiveness of the safety processes and procedures

In practice, safety reviews come in many different forms. We'll talk about some effective approaches later in this article. But first, let's take a closer look at what they are and how they can benefit your safety program.

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(Learn more in Getting Your Occupational Health and Safety Program Started in 6 Steps)

Safety Reviews Versus Safety Audits

To better understand what a safety review consists of, it’s helpful to contrast it with a safety audit. A comprehensive workplace safety program should include both, but each are distinct.

A safety audit is concerned with the legislation, standards, and regulations that govern workplace safety. It is an investigation to determine whether an organization is in compliance with the safety regulations that apply to it.

A safety review, on the other hand, aims to determine whether a company is following its safety policies and whether those policies are effective.

It goes above and beyond compliance to see what else can be done. It's not about ensuring that the company's safety program is legally sound - it's about optimizing the safety program.

What Is Workplace Safety?

To better understand the imporatnce of safety reviews, let's start with the big picture question: what is safety?

There are various ways to define safety. Go ahead and search for a definition online and you'll come up with a lot of different and conflicting interpretation. Some, however, are much less useful than others.

The simplest and least realistic one I’ve seen defined safety as “the absence of accidents or incidents." That’s certainly a lofty goal and it would be great if we could achieve it. Unfortunately, we can’t. On this definition, the only way to achieve total safety would be to leave every aircraft off the ground, every commercial vehicle off the road, and prevent every worker from using machinery.

Like I said, it's not exactly realistic.

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A better and more practical way to understand safety is to see it as a concept that includes all the measures and practices that an organization takes to preserve the life, health, and wellbeing of its people. In other words, it is the application of all reasonable means to bring the risk of an accident or incident to its lowest practical level - even if it can never be entirely eliminated.

(See The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls to learn more about hazard elimination)

Basically, we should think in terms of the level or margin of safety, not the absence of workplace incidents.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take safety seriously. On the contrary, the health and safety of workers should be every employer’s top priority. In fact, OSHA regulations require the implementation and enforcement of strict safety protocols to minimize the risks faced by workers.

It means that taking safety seriously means aiming at ambitious but realistic goals instead of targets that are completely unattainable.

(Find out why in The Real Problem with Zero-Incident Safety Programs)

Measuring Safety in an Organization

To conduct an effective safety review, you need a good sense of how your safety program is performing. Measuring safety, however, isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

If we went with the definition of safety as the total elimination of incidents, then it would be simple enough. All you'dhave to do is measure every accident and count each one as a mark against your safety program.

But this won't do. A company can be very unsafe yet have very few accidents on record. Another business, meanwhile, could be diligently following all safety measure and industry best practices but still deal with a fatal incident.

Thinking of safety in terms of indicators is far more useful, albeit somewhat more complex.

Incidents and accidents are lagging indicators. They provide useful information and can help you identify where your safety program has failed. But that’s precisely the issue - it can only tell you about past performance (hence, why they are "lagging").

Safety is better understood in terms of leading indicators. These are not a tally of the number of incidents but, rather, the various factors that promote safety in your workplace.

This includes the broad indicators of safety, like the strength of the company’s safety culture or how thorough its safety management system is. It also includes the more fine-grained indicators, such as whether a worker dons their PPE, how often toolbox talks take place, and whether the equipment is inspected before use.

This is where safety reviews come in. Conducting regular reviews not only helps you keep tabs on the leading indicators of safety in your workplace, but itself counts as one.

(Find out How Leading Indicators Can Make Your Workplace Safer)

Hazard Identification Through Safety Reviews

A safety review seeks to identify the latent conditions that have the potential to cause harm - in other words, the hazards in your workplace. These hazards are then measured in terms of probability, severity, and the benefits that would accrue from controlling them.

The results are then analyzed and compiled in a statement of risk, along with recommendations updates to the safety program that would mitigate those risks.

Here is a hypothetical hazard identification scenario to illustrate what this involves.

  • Scenario: A company has a docking station for a large body aircraft. The docking station must be fully retracted for the aircraft to pull into the dock without being damaged.
  • Hazard: There are no visible means of knowing that the dock is fully retracted.
  • Risk: The aircraft will strike the dock if it is not fully retracted.
  • Probability: Low, as the company has a policy to always fully retract the dock whenever it is pulled away.
  • Severity: Medium to high.
  • Risk Mitigation: Paint red lines which would give a positive visual clue that the dock is fully retracted. Training to ensure that all personnel check that the dock is at the required line using a checklist before towing an aircraft.

Assessing Workplace Hazards, One Step at a Time

Failure to identify present or anticipated hazards is considered as the root cause of injuries, illness, and incidents in the workplace.

Following a well-designed and standardized procedure for identifying hazards is, therefore, a very significant leading indicator for safety.

A hazard identification procedure looks like this:

  • Collecting and reviewing information about present and anticipated hazards
  • Conducting initial and periodic inspections to identify new or recurring risks
  • Investigating incidents to determine the underlying hazards that led to the event, their causes, and any shortcomings in the organization’s safety program
  • Identifying trends in injuries, illnesses, and hazards
  • Prioritizing corrective actions based on the severity and likelihood of possible future incidents

A Better Approach to Safety Reviews

As mentioned above, a safety review looks beyond regulatory compliance. Unlike an audit, it doesn’t look for the bare legal minimum; instead, the goal is to find and correct hazards even if their presence doesn’t violate any laws or standards.

To ensure its effectiveness, a safety review should be performed by two people with some safety experience.

They should start by reviewing the company’s existing policies and assess whether they are meeting their intended objectives.

After that, it’s time for boots on the ground - speaking to front-line workers and office personnel to gather their opinions about the current safety system and any of its possible shortcomings.

This step is often underestimated, if not skipped altogether, but it is an important one. There have been companies where the custodial staff were fully aware of a hazard while management didn’t even know it existed.

The findings and recommendations should be documented and presented to the company’s management team. It is their responsibility to determine the best course of action and which measures to implement.

(For related reading, see Why Safety Programs Fail)

The Case for Safety Reviews

A safety review may sound like a formality, but it’s far more than that. It’s a way to uncover unknown issues and formulate concrete steps to regularly and continuously improve the company’s safety management system.

Is a safety review enough to keep your workplace as safe as it can be? No, not on its own. But it can be an important part of your safety arsenal - one that strengthens your safety culture and optimizes your safe work processes.

If safety is one of your core corporate values, then safety reviews should be one of your regular corporate practices.

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Written by Gordon Dupont

Profile Picture of Gordon Dupont
Gordon Dupont "The Father of the Dirty Dozen"

Gordon worked for Transport Canada from March 1993 to August 1999 as a Special Programs Coordinator. In this position he was responsible for coordinating with the aviation industry in the development of programs which would serve to reduce maintenance error. In this position he assisted in the development of Human Performance in Maintenance (HPIM) Part 1 and 2. The "Dirty Dozen" maintenance Safety posters were an outcome of HPIM Pt 1.Prior to working for Transport, Gordon worked for seven years as a Technical Investigator for the Canadian Aviation Safety Board later to become the Canadian Transportation Safety Board. In this position he saw first hand the tragic results of maintenance and human error.

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