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Safeguard Magazine

Learning on the job

Looking for a way to earn respect, build relationships, gain new insights and be a better health and safety practitioner? SCOTT GESINGER suggests getting your hands dirty.

Many health and safety professionals will have been taught that adult learning is most effective when it is experiential – but how many of us apply this to ourselves?

You’ve probably encountered someone who writes procedures for tasks he or she does not understand: a ladder safety programme (but has never actually used an extension ladder); or a forklift safety rule (but has never actually driven a forklift).

Relying on health and safety practitioners to provide technical guidance for tasks they are experientially ignorant of is unwise and dangerous. How can you provide technical guidance if you have never experienced the activity? For that matter, when employees realise that the guidance they are asked to follow was written by someone who obviously has not experienced the activity, how are we to expect them to follow the guidance?

Consider the case of Chuck Yeager, a gifted US test pilot who in 1947 became the first person confirmed to have broken the sound barrier. He began his military career as an enlisted mechanic, and was made a Flying Sergeant when the Army Air Corps needed more pilots for service during the Second World War. In his 1986 autobiography, he recounts multiple instances where the knowledge he gained as an aircraft mechanic – building, repairing, and diagnosing mechanical issues – saved his life as a pilot in combat and when flying experimental aircraft.

By taking the time to understand a knowledge set outside of his immediate area of concern (piloting the aircraft), Yeager was able to apply a unique perspective to the challenge at hand (quickly diagnosing and dealing with an in-flight emergency) in such a manner as to provide for the most favourable outcome. Had he not understood the mechanics of how his aircraft worked, he would not have had the skillset to diagnose problems and understand the capabilities of his aircraft.


Similarly, we as safety practitioners can gain knowledge outside of our immediate area of concern to apply unique perspectives to problem solving by engaging in the practice known as Gemba walks. As opposed to management by walking around, a Gemba walk is taking time to learn and understand the work being done by employees. It comes from a Japanese word for “the real place.” In lean management, a Gemba walk is when a member of management (or in this case H&S) goes to the “real place” where work is performed and learns how and why employees perform the work the way they do.

I suggest we take this concept one step further and schedule time each month to perform work with employees, side-by-side; similarly, a portion of our continuing education time each year should be dedicated to learning details about a technical skill related to the place of employment, such as becoming a certified forklift operator or attending a trade-related class.

Not only will working with line employees to learn their jobs improve your understanding of how the work in production areas is actually done, but it builds relationships and contributes to direct, unfiltered feedback from employees.

In my experience, once an employee witnesses a health and safety person do something like stop touring a grain handling facility and begin shovelling corn with employees, or sitting down next to an employee and actually trying to assemble a fibre optic component, the employee’s attitude toward that person (and indeed toward H&S in general) becomes less guarded, and employees begin to provide substantive feedback about safety. Employees with whom you have built a relationship are more likely to flag you down as you pass through to show you something the he or she feels could be a safety issue.

Once you have taken time to show people that the work they do is not “beneath” you, you will be able to create more realistic policies and procedures that align with your hands-on experience of performing the work.

Getting “in the trenches” with employees also allows us to perform more effective incident investigations. We can listen to an employee describe why the guard on a cutting tool was removed, or, better, we can walk through the performance of a task with the employee and experience why the guard on a cutting tool has been removed.

Anyone can look through policies, talk with employees, take a few pictures of a removed guard, and come to a conclusion that the employees just need to do the job the way management tells them to. It takes something more to go to the workstation and have an open enough mind to experience why the employee removed the guard to do the job the way the employee felt the need to do it. By learning the true reasons why employees perform their jobs in an unsafe manner, we can get to the root cause of an incident.


Dedicating time and effort to work side-by-side with employees also earns credibility and respect. Early in my current role the facility maintenance technician at a manufacturing facility was assigned a loathed task: cleaning out an in-floor harpoon system that pushed oil and metal shavings out of the machining department through a shallow trench and into a waste tank. There was a deadline for the task, because the company was moving out of the building, and the new owner was due to do their final inspection in less than a week. While many engineering and accounting managers had promised to contribute an employee or two to help out, none of the managers delivered on the day the work had to be done.

I heard about the situation from the maintenance technician and immediately went home to change into clothes that could get filthy. The two of us spent the next nine or so hours performing a job that absolutely nobody in the facility ever wanted to do. By the end of the day, both of us were covered in oil and metal shavings, and my clothes were so filthy I decided to just throw them away.

Word spread that the new safety guy was willing to leave his cubicle and get dirty. Employees knew he had laboured through a long, hard day, and that he had helped turn a two-day miserable, lonely task into a one-day only somewhat horrible and less lonely task. From that day forward, the entire Maintenance Department has been one of the strongest groups of safety advocates the company has ever seen. When the H&S Department needs to make changes in safety procedures, the safety practitioner will sit down with them and the Maintenance Department gives him frank, blunt, sometimes quite colourful feedback in an open and respectful manner (they informed me that they were trained in Deming’s principle of calling it like it is). If a new safety rule means they have to make some changes to the way they do things, they are more accepting because of the relationship that has been built.


I do not formalise Gemba walks with checklists, clipboards, cameras, etc. I’ve had much better results when there is no paper involved. By keeping things simple and informal, the intimidation factor is greatly reduced, and employees are more willing to be honest and open in their communication. Choosing jobs for Gemba walks is based on investigation needs, incident history, risk assessments, or simple curiosity.

Some jobs take years of training in order to achieve proficiency. If you approach the people performing those jobs and announce you’d like to spend a day or two learning the job, it can be viewed as flippant or as not fully appreciating the skill required. Careful communication is required to show employees that you don’t expect to become an expert at the job, but are simply looking for a basic understanding of how and why the job is done the way it is.


Finally, what to do if a job is by nature risky? Should health and safety practitioners who work in, say, forestry or fishing realistically be expected to perform these roles? Absolutely! If a job is so inherently dangerous that you are unwilling to do it, why should anyone else be willing to do it? In these cases, you should take time to train for the job and to learn safe practices from those who perform the work before joining the job activities. If it is simply impossible or infeasible to perform the tasks – lineman work for instance – then you can make arrangements to be an observer.

A great plan is to join a group of new employees for their basic training period, then spend time on the job. That’s right – those employees you’re writing safety programmes for are the ones who will teach you how to do the work safely. Not only will you learn how and why the job is done the way it is, but you will be given a chance to evaluate new employee training in the most effective way possible. It might be working near rail cars, performing a job at a dangerous height, or working near machinery – after you have gone through training you will have confidence that new employees are being trained properly, or you’ll have a new number one item on your to-do list.

The use of Gemba walks and experiential learning can reap great rewards and become an invaluable tool for advancing safety initiatives. The time and effort spent with employees on their dayto-day tasks is an investment in the future of safety at an organisation, and in one’s proficiency as a safety practitioner.


  • • 
    Schedule time each month to perform work with employees.
  • • 
    This helps build relationships and your credibility.
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    It enhances your understanding of work as it is actually done.
  • • 
    People will tell you things they might not have otherwise.

Scott Gesinger is a safety engineer with CommScope in Minnesota. This is an abridged version of an article published in the February 2016 edition of the ASSE’s magazine Professional Safety.

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