Safety checklists are ubiquitous in EHS and workplace safety. We use them for everything from hazardous waste checks and routine inspections to annual audits and job safety analyses. However, while checklists can serve as a great resource to guide a process or review, there have limitations.
The use of an incomplete or inaccurate checklist can lead to program gaps and overlooked hazards. This is what I like to call the “checklist hazard”.
What Safety Checklists Are and Are Not
When used correctly, safety checklists are valuable resources that supplement thorough and consistent review processes. They also serve as effective documentation tools. However, checklists aren’t universal maps for completing a process or replacements for formal training or expertise.
Safety checklists are meant to be customized
To be effective, checklists require customization to fit the intended process. Grabbing a “stock” checklist from the internet, “borrowing” one from another organization, or “adapting” a checklist specific to a different equipment model can lead to non-specific reviews that overlook critical hazards. Additionally, effective checklists should be user-friendly, well-formatted, and have an intuitive flow. These elements combine to create a thorough, reliable, and efficient review.
Checklist are only as good as the user
The individual using the checklist is as important as the checklist itself. Even the best checklists are ineffective if used incorrectly. Because of this, the individual tasked with performing the check must be intimately familiar with each element of the process, as well as any other underlying considerations that lie beyond the checklist’s scope. This additional depth of knowledge is critical because every process has caveats and nuances that may not be fully captured by the checklist. If the individual performing the task is incapable of recognizing these additional hazards, the checklist will provide little more than a false sense of security.
Checklist are not a substitute for training
An untrained individual should never be handed a checklist and told to “figure it out”. Regardless of simplicity, the reviewer needs specific instruction for each checklist element. The individual should also receive “hands-on” instruction and observe the process before completing it themselves.
Why You Shouldn’t Become Overly Reliant on Checklists
EHS is BIG and Complex
This is one of the first things I tell anyone new to the safety field. There are numerous hazard categories and underlying risks in safety.
A few of the more common examples include:
- Chemical, biological, radiological, electrical, mechanical, physical
- Height, weight, speed, pressure
- Ergonomic, psychologic
- Acute, chronic
Additionally, each of these considerations can be addressed by a number of potentially suitable engineering controls, administrative procedures, and protective measures.
The best safety professionals have a keen awareness of the scope and complexity of the safety landscape and are open and honest about their own limitations. No matter how “standard” a process may seem, there are always opportunities to customize and fine-tune a checklist to provide critical specifications for the inspector.
Tunnel vision is a real concern
The second potential issue with relying too heavily on checklists is the risk of developing tunnel vision and focusing only on the listed elements. As stated previously, the checklist should serve to supplement an expert level review, so the individual performing the check should have enough working knowledge to identify issues beyond those on the checklist.
The risk of tunnel vision is also why I strongly recommend having multiple people capable of performing a given review. The opportunity to have a “second set of eyes” or switch off on the review process can protect against a reviewer becoming “blinded by the familiar” (an element we discussed in our April 10th post).
Checklists do not adapt on their own
Checklists are static documents that can quickly become ineffective when changes are made to the process or facility. It is important to frequently reevaluate the process to ensure that existing checklists are thorough and accurately assess the hazards. Incomplete and out-of-date checklists are significant contributors to the “checklist hazard” and often provide a false sense of security.
When used properly, checklists are valuable tools that can be a great addition to any review process. They guide and standardize oversight across multiple reviewers, serve as documentation, and provide peace of mind for complex and highly hazardous operations. However, checklists require careful development, customization, and maintenance and aren’t replacements for detailed training and expertise.
Photo Credit: Pixabay.com – TeroVesalainen