Conducting a Psychology and Culture Safety Walk

by Dr Rob Long on May 24, 2014

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long,Simplistic Safety

Conducting a Psychology and Culture Safety Walk

Not to be confused with the Gemba Safety Walk!

Safety walks, observations and conversations are foundational to managing safety in organisations. Site walks, office walks or whatever you want to call them are a critical strategy in ‘management by walking around’. You can’t assess or address assumptions, beliefs, values and attitudes very well by sitting at a desk or signing off checklists. Leaders know that dialogue and walking around must be a priority.

Walks, observations and talks are the big challenge for leaders and managers who have high level desk-constrained obligations. Effective leaders know how to strike a balance between email management and face-to-face management.

Safety walks often focus on important physical hazards and risks. These ‘primary’ hazards and risks are visible and on the surface. However, it’s just as important to attend to ‘secondary’ (psychological) and ‘tertiary’ (cultural) hazards and risks. Secondary and tertiary hazards and risks are below the surface and are largely unseen.

Safety walks must do much more than police easy ‘cosmetic’ targets such as PPE. Walks, observations, listening and conversations need to tune-in to cultural and psychological hazards and risks in the workplace. The iceberg metaphor in Figure 1 captures the challenge.

Figure 1. Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Hazards and Risks

safety culture

A psychology and culture safety walk adds a new dimension to the practice of conducting a safety walk. A psychology and culture safety walk observes and listens for psychological and cultural hazards and risks. Knowing what these hazards and risks look like and sound like requires training, practice and skill development.

General safety walks focus on what is ‘seen’, the tip of the iceberg. Psychology and culture safety walks focus on what is ‘unseen’, the 70% below the water line. It is often the things we cannot see which drive culture and implicit knowledge. It is often undisclosed assumptions that send things pear shaped in times of turbulence.

Effective walks, observations and conversations are not something one does automatically. Effective questioning and listening are something one has to learn and develop with practice. It’s all a matter of focus and perception,

What are the skills of an effective psychology and culture safety walk? What kinds of things does a psychology and culture safety walk look for? The following are a helpful foundation:

1. Most importantly it is critical to get the balance right between listening and telling. Safety walks should be about dialogue not just monologue.

2. Observing and listening must not be perceived as ‘spying’ and ‘policing’. The listening needs to be genuine, not a loaded gun waiting to shoot people down for the first mistake. Creating a climate of acceptance for observations and conversations takes training and time.

3. A psychology of safety walk should be understood as an education and learning activity for both observer and worker.

4. A psychology of safety walk must be a positive experience. There should be a good balance between negative and positive discussion, especially finishing on positives.

5. Observers should be trained and practiced in listening for cultural language. They should be able to hear values and assumptions in discussion that have implications for safety.

6. Observers should be practiced in the art of open questioning. Stimulating conversation and avoiding entrapment into lecture mode is a real skill that requires work.

7. Observers need to stimulate discussion, observe and listen for:

a. Perceptions

b. Interruptions

c. Disruptions

d. Work flow

e. Work goals

f. Time pressures

g. Fatigue

h. Stereotypes

i. Generalisations

j. Stressors

k. Blaming language

l. Simplistic language

m. Projections

n. Dismissal

o. Resignation

8. It is important that the observer know and is conscious of what they are doing. A psychology of safety walk need not be announced to everyone, but the observer needs to undertake such a walk with intentionality.

It is amazing what an experienced observer can detect in a short walk and talk. It is important that small issues not distract the safety observer but that influencing culture takes the major focus.


Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • I like this article. I am an HR generlist who has embarked on the safety journey a decade ago. Like many, I started on the zero road, however, I have learnt very quickly that we should not treat people as widgets – I quickly reinvested in my HR expertise. Afterall widgets are much easier to manage and once we appreciate that a fundamental understanding of people is essential, not only to safety but also to everyday life, to the bank you could be in a hurry and ahead of others.

    At the begining of 2014, I was put in a new department of my company and was told at the very begining, that the operations director has no suport nor regard for safety. I took up the challenge and asked that I be given one year to work with this director to influence him – at no time did I stress “SAFETY”…. All I focussed on was, how we could collaboratively give both ears to the ‘floor’ where the magic happens. I discussed the benefits to his department of a respected, trusted and free workforce, and again none of the benefits I outlined had a direct safety component. He was very excited and promised me to walk the floor with me every week. At the end of 2014 we had completed 24 walks.

    Long story short, he was converted since he saw the tremendous benefits to employees, supervisors and managers under his charge. There was a visible change in the floor conversation….. employees were experiencing a change in the way things happened, problems and issues were fixed on the spot, perceptions were not the same as before, employees started to believe. Not that I love figures that much, but after 18 months LTIFR reduced significantly. My safety folks started to enquire what was the magic! There was none – much of what is expressed in this article was put in practise – we called them ‘collective efforts in prevention’.

    • Hi Ram – welcome to our community and thanks so much for your positive and inspirational story – you have shown that safety shouldn’t always be about safety and one of the best ways to improve it may be to stop talking about it!

      As a welcome and a thankyou I would like to send you one of Dr Rob Long’s books which will give you a whole new insight into some of the great things you are already doing. Please email me your postal address:

      • Ditto Dave, good response Ram. The key to tackling risk is being truly human, not being super human. An ordinary connection and conversation is not so ordinary.

        • So true! I often wonder why many a supervisor, manager or executive would not use this simple strategy. I work in a very strong union environment where conversations on the work floor (management/employee) could be, perceptively, a hugh challenge. This is why I probably found this site, in search of support of what I believe in and was doing over the past couple of years. Here’s a simple strategy I have used in incident investigations for example – I ask supervisors to consider the question…”How did I fail this employee?” then ask….”How did the company fail this employee?”……no blame, period, just reflection….As you would imagine this is not easy to do…….my colleagues think I am crazy!!

      • Hi Dave:

        I am indeed very thrilled to be offered one of Dr. Long’s pieces….. Sometime this year I started to read his articles, and that of the community of responders, you included. I am always inspired by the thoughts expressed since I do share these beliefs myself and as you now know have been practicing them, perhaps all my life in industry – not putting the concept frame to it as you folks do so admirably.

        • Thanks Ram – I’ll post next year sometime 🙂 I think most of us have had feelings/thoughts all of our careers that there was something missing or that there had to be a better way – and these concepts are just starting to chrystalise those thoughts

  • Excellent article. These very same principles must be integrated in Behaviour Based Safety Observations (BBS) for them to have the desired effect of improving the safety culture and climate of the org. What I mean by this is that people are enthusiastic about health and safety, are not scared or raising issues or concerns, and feel supported when they report incidents, hazards etc. People enjoy health and safety, find it relevant, and don’t really look at it as a policing type of thing. Cheers

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