Do You Use a Systems Approach to Safety Inspections?

When I first entered the safety profession. I was taught to think in terms of everything as a system. We were encouraged to correct errors in the systems rather than just correct a hazard here and a hazard there. Nearly thirty years later I do not hear that same emphasis on systems thinking and I think that is hurting the profession. I would like to revisit the topic and add some relative information. My goal is to encourage you to think systems when conducting inspections.

The Safety Program is a large system under the system that run the organization. The Safety Program acts like an umbrella for many sub-programs that include:

  • Program Administration
  • Work Place Inspection
  • Accident and Incident Investigation
  • Hazard Identification and Assessment
  • Hazard Abatement
  • Workforce Training

Most organizations I am familiar with have a safety program in place. The goal of this program is to help reduce the occurrence of injuries, illnesses, and property damage. When you use a systems approach to the Safety Program you are also working towards correcting hazards based on their systemic causes as well as improving the system that operates within the organization (Accident Prevention Manual, 1997).

Safety inspections should be should be designed to enhance the effectiveness of the organization and the workers. Primarily, inspections that are well planned and executed are used to identify hazards hazardous conditions before these result in an accident (Blake, 1963). However to be successful, the inspection was also be used by management to identify not only hazards but their systemic causes as well (Inspection Techniques and Hazard Recognition, 1985).

An inspection may be used to sell the safety program to employees and to provide an opportunity for the safety personnel to contact workers and solicit their support for the safety program (Handbook of Occupational Safety and Health, 1985). Whatever reason you have for conducting a safety inspection must be done to benefit the organization and support the continued improvement of the system.

There are two basic types of safety inspections; the one-call and the continuous. The one – call inspections is conducted by safety professional normally carried out to appraise current safety performance of an organization (Blake, 1963). This is the full inspection conducted yearly or perhaps more often if the organization has moderate and high hazard operations. The second type of inspection is called a continuous inspection. These actions are conducted by organizational personnel and occur on a continuing basis (Handbook of Occupational Safety and Health, 1985). People might refer to these as quality control. They may be conducted by anyone in the organization who has completed proper training. This is also an area where the supervisor can be very effective (Supervisor Safety Manual, 1967). The supervisor can delegate inspection of operations and facilities specialists who work in that area.

Also, the supervisor may want to conduct some of the inspections and can use this time to show her commitment to safety. This type of inspection is important because the hazards cannot simply wait for the full inspection, they must be looked for in a proactive manner and corrected as quickly as possible. In all cases systemic inspection program can reduce the hazards of preventing accidents while showing a continuous effort to improve the system (Fanning, 1994).

Let us look at an example. If I inspect a maintenance shop I will probably find several pages of safety hazards. I note them on a log. As I go through the log I start to notice that several are related to the Fire and Life Safety Codes. I see that:

  • Equipment block fire extinguishers.
  • Equipment blocks fire alarm boxes.
  • Flame arrestors are not used on the torches.
  • Storing gasoline outside of a flammable container
  • Using gasoline for cleaning.

From these deficiencies, I determine that management was not enforcing the Fire and Life Safety Codes. I can handle this in one of two ways:

  1. Recommend the shop supervisor fix each hazard on the log.
  2. Recommend management fix the systemic failures, which leads to fixing each hazard and the system.

When I look at this from a systems perspective I find that:

  • Shop personnel not trained on Fire Prevention or the Life Safety Code.
  • The local fire inspector has never visited the shop or conducted an inspection.
  • The collateral duty safety representative for the shop did not know she was supposed to identify hazards that were fire related.
  • There was no Fire and Life Safety Program in the organization.
  • The organization was to have appointed a collateral duty fire warden.

To target the systemic causes, I complete a worksheet. The worksheet addresses the systemic causes and helps to keep track of who should be correcting them and their status (Inspection Techniques and Hazard Recognition, 1985). I made the work sheets up myself. I use them to identify the hazard, its cause, deficiencies in the system that created or has allowed the hazard to exist, and corrective measures each systemic deficiency. I collate all the worksheets that have the same systemic defect and identify a correct measure that can correct all the individual hazards. These are the systemic causes you put on the cover letter to the inspection report. Once the systemic deficiencies are corrected, you should not see a recurrence of the same hazards again.

How do I let management know about the systems deficiencies? We all know that each safety inspection must be documented properly to help the organization in identifying the types the seriousness of the hazards that exist (Fanning, 1994). I already noted that I identified the hazards on a log that identified the hazard, location of hazard, a risk assessment code, and recommended correction for the hazard. However, a log does not provide systemic deficiencies. For that I use a cover letter to the log.

A cover letter should accompany a log and state generalities, and systemic causes in a language organizational personnel can understand and work with (Inspection Techniques and Hazard Recognition, 1985). I use the information gathered in my work sheets to the cover letter. There I show that hazards exist and which systems have deficiencies that have caused or contributed to those hazards. I encourage management to correct the systemic deficiencies to resolve the individual hazards.

Before the inspection is considered complete, a follow-up inspection must be conducted. I do the inspection within 90 days of the initial inspection (Fanning, 1994). I use this inspection to find out if the organization is correcting the systemic deficiencies. Unfortunately, I do not always find that result. If an organization loses sight systemic causes, it may never fix the real reasons the hazards exist. It is at this point that I report to management and encourage them to correct the systemic deficiencies. I use follow-up inspections to keep the emphasis on the systems deficiencies.

Any safety program can benefit from a good, solid inspection program that is designed to support the organization serves (Weaver, 1992). What can I get from using a systems approach to inspection? By correcting systemic deficiencies, you will enhance the systems within the organization and not be used just to correct a few hazards. This means now more than ever that your safety program will be an asset to your organization (Fanning, 1994).


Accident Prevention Manual for Industrial Operations, seventh edition. National Safety Council, USA, 1977.

Blake, Roland P.  ed. Industrial Safety, third edition. Prentice Hall, USA, 1963.

Fanning, Fred. A Systems Approach to Safety Inspections, Tech-Letter, World Safety Organization, USA, 1994.

Handbook of Occupational Safety and Health. National Safety Council, USA, 1985.

Inspection Techniques and Hazard Recognition. U.S. Army Safety Center, USA, 1985

Supervisor Safety Manual, third edition. National Safety Council, USA, 1967.

Weaver, France. Camping Provides Real Ammunition in War on Civilian Accident Costs, Civilian Accident Prevention Program Report, Winter, 1992: 5-6.

About Fred Fanning Author

Fred Fanning currently writes biweekly on his blog His published works include the peer-reviewed book Basic Safety Administration-A Handbook for the New Safety Specialist. Fred also authored two editions of the peer-reviewed chapter Safety Training and Documentation Principles that was published in the bestselling Safety Professional Handbook and the Safety Professional Handbook Management Applications. He coauthored the peer-reviewed chapter Safety Training with Christine Fiori, Ph.D., PE, published in the bestselling Construction Safety Management and Engineering, second edition edited by Darryl C. Hill, Ph.D., CSP. Fred also has several self-published books. He has a series called Fred’s Safety Shorts. This is a collection of twelve books on topics related to safety published with Kindle Direct Publishing. Fred self-published another six books using both CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform and Kindle Direct Publishing. He has authored fifty-eight articles in various publications on the topics of safety and health and project management. Fred has earned several writing awards for his non-fiction work. Fred has two novels A Walk Among the Dead and Mystery at Devil’s Elbow.
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