Do health and safety checklists work?

Early in my career as an environmental, health and safety professional, there was a significant amount of time spent developing environmental, health and safety checklists for performing routine inspections.

In some cases, these "checklists" grew to over forty pages in length and covered every possible health and safety aspect. These aspects included laboratory safety, hazardous wastes management, industrial hygiene, hearing conservation, lockout/tagout, hazard communication, and so on.

The disadvantages of using these checklists were numerous and included the following:

  • Individuals believed that if they took the time to once a month to review the items on the checklist that they had fulfilled their health and safety responsibility for the month. Health and safety performance was a "check the box" approach.
  • Individuals would get "galvanized" by these checklists and would often overlook obvious hazards that weren’t on the checklist.
  • The checklists were sometimes completed by employees who had little or no formal training or experience. During periodic environmental, health and safety audits by corporate staff—as long as the checklists were completed on the required frequency—all was good.
  • Follow-up to correcting found deficiencies was poor and often items that were observed one month were often observed the following month.

While health and safety checklists may serve as a casual reminder of the items you may want to evaluate, health and safety checklists are not a substitute for a comprehensive environmental, health and safety system which includes management leadership; the prior assessment of new products, services and activities for potential health and safety hazards; the implementation of controls to either eliminated these hazards or to minimize the risks; and the ongoing process of reviewing your program to ensure continuous improvement.

Fortunately, environmental, health and safety professionals have recognized this need and many companies have adopted or are pursuing a management systems approach. In addition, advances in technologies have facilitated the development of compliance management software and corrective action software solutions to ensure that health and safety performance is sustainable, and not a once per month activity.

So, the next time you feel tempted to develop another checklist, give it a second thought and determine if your time would be better spent developing systems.

Published August 15, 2010

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