The Contextual Categorisation Of Safety Observations

Safety observations are a topic on every safety managers’ table at the moment. Googling the keyword gives 475 000 000 results so there’s no shortage of information either. COVID-19 has increased the importance of health and safety and even cleaning has become a topic for  boardroom discussions. But what are safety observations, typically the smallest units of currency for safety managers, who eagerly encourage everyone to report as many of them as they are willing? 

Safety observations are often defined as both safe and unsafe acts or conditions in the workplace. However, most organisations leave it there and let the employees define what they mean, which is not often clear to all employees. To engage all employees for reporting safety observations and improving safety culture, they either need to be trained for it or otherwise instructed what they are. Luckily there is a simple solution: categorisation!

The Categorisation Of Safety Observations


Safety observation is an activity that identifies safety issues in a work environment. It accounts for the unsafe conditions or actions of which root causes are corrected and fixed to help ensure that near misses, accidents, injuries and fatalities don’t happen.

Organisations and managers can use safety observations as a mechanism to ensure safe working conditions. Having a Behaviour-Based Safety Observation (BBSO) program may also be beneficial. It encourages workers to also look at behaviours that impact safety in the workplace. All workers can learn from past or present conditions, behaviours and acts to avoid incidents. 

Various incidents can and should be recorded to improve safety in a workplace: near misses, accidents and injuries to name a few. As there clearly are different types of incidents, it is important to have specific categories for different circumstances. Besides these meta-categories, a good reporting system helps to direct the end-user to add context to the report to explain and give clarity into the details of an occurrence. In plain English this means answering the question: what did you observe? Read further to understand how to put this into action.


How Do You Know What Contextual Categories To Use? 

As the name suggests, it all depends on the context. The chosen categories for your safety reporting and safety observations may be inspired by industry standards. Many industries have basic Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) protocols and checklists that each organisation should abide by. This is the industry context. 

Meta-categories, like unsafe vs. safe conditions, are too vague to give anybody a clue about what may have happened. 

So, the most effective and informative way to go is to create contextual categories that help describe exactly what happened. Here are a few examples: 

  • Inadequate signs/markings
  • No PPE used
  • Slippery floor
  • Sanding failure outdoors
  • Electrical faults
  • Faulty equipment / device


4 Ways Categorisation Helps

You might be thinking, “What difference can categorisation really make to my organisation’s safety reporting?” Here are the four main areas where categorisation helps. 


Guides employees to learn what else to report

When your staff actually decides to report a safety issue, the experience of the whole workflow defines a lot whether they end up reporting again or not. Part of the experience relates to what safety observations are all about and guiding the user through them. As an example, a categorisation in a manufacturing environment could include what is shown here:

When an employee is predisposed to other safety observation categories, the entire reporting funnel works as a reminder and a lesson about what both good and bad safety means. And just as we like to say, safety culture is defined by how well employees and third parties are engaged for safety reporting and corrective actions.

Category specific details help to capture relevant information

With straightforward, to-the-point categories, there is less time wasted in resolving safety reports. In the initial reporting, an effective safety reporting system should make sure the category-specific context gets captured. Some of the data fields might be universal for all categories, like:

  • When the incident occurred
  • How and why it occurred
  • Who was involved 

But some of the details are category-specific, like:

  • Which machine and machine part was broken (in case of equipment fault)
  • The exact GPS location of sanding failure or slipperiness
  • Type of PPE not being used
  • Products being stolen (in case of theft or shoplifting reports)
  • Due date of extinguisher inspection

Having just the relevant enriched details for each category facilitates quicker action in handling the safety observation. Knowing which category to find the report in is part of promoting this efficiency. Even for the crime / loss prevention related categories, like shown below, the required information differs a lot:

It’s important to also understand that too much information will prevent people from reporting observations. So start small and expand category by category what data fields you are using.


Routing automation shares the occurrence to the correct assignees

Part of resolving the safety observation requires knowing who is responsible for that area or department. For example, if an observation is filed under the “electrical faults” context, it can and should be immediately referred to the company electrician. Categorisation helps automate and thus speed up the routing of the issue to the right people.

Gatekeepers and middlemen holding information is one of the cardinal sins of not just safety management systems but any other information management systems. Consider the following image as an example how automated routing could help to assign the correct assignees for safety observations that relate to service requests as well:



With a reporting platform that stores and analyses information efficiently, you can monitor the different categories you have created. This helps you identify which areas require the most resources and focus to improve workplace safety. Essentially, categorisation can help you develop analytics to learn from issues and face them head-on. A good management system not only covers the number of observations by category but also enables analysis on other data fields. As an example, many of the most severe EHS observations related to spillage or leakage of oil, fuels or other chemicals are often defined by how many litres of the contaminant got leaked or spilled and where. Being able to analyse these numbers can make a big difference when it comes to creating corrective and preventive actions and focusing resources better. 

Screenshot 2020-12-01 at 14.17.32

Final thoughts

It is clear that the contextual categorisation of (safety) observations is important. It speeds up the reporting process, trains employees on what to report observations about, and helps organisations to solve safety problems quicker and allocate resources smarter. In the end, this will help organisations to avoid costly accidents and critical near-misses and to build better safety cultures. 


If you're looking for an incident reporting platform that is hyper easy-to-use, helps to categorise your safety observations, incidents and near misses, includes two-way communication, has built-in workflows for multiple use cases and more, test drive our Falcony | Observe module or contact us for more information!

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We are building the world's first operational involvement platform. Our mission is to make the process of finding, sharing, fixing and learning from issues and observations as easy as thinking about them and as rewarding as being remembered for them.‍

By doing this, we are making work more meaningful for all parties involved.

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