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The Safety Coaching Observation Process

In the 1980s, my main job responsibility was “gin-setting” power poles in backyards and rights-of-way in Maryland. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a gin pole is a supported pole that serves as a lifting device; it has a pulley or block and tackle on its upper end to lift loads. Without the luxury of a boom truck, pole-setting was one of the most demanding activities in line work. Over my 37 years of setting poles, some days were more memorable than others. On one occasion, a pole had to be set behind a row house. Access to the work site was so limited that the only solution was to maneuver the pole through the front door of a home, down the hall and out the back door. It was a funny experience because as work was going on, the unit owner and her two children sat on the couch and watched TV, as if we weren’t there, until we finished.

There are many memorable pole-setting stories, but there is one in particular that led me to write this Tailgate. My team was tasked with installing a 65-foot pole over a ravine and onto a power line where an existing ground-rotted pole stood. We had dug the hole beside the existing pole and were pulling the bed-winch line through a block to grab the new pole and drag it to the hole. Without warning, we ran out of bed-winch line. I called up to the new guy who was running the truck and told him to hook the bull rope to the winch until we moved the pole to where we could reach it again. After a few minutes, the pole started to move and then something happened that caused me to black out. When I came to, I was being carried out of the ravine by two other workers.

What went wrong? After I received stitches at the hospital, my team members and I went back to investigate. Here’s what we learned: First, I wasn’t wearing a hard hat. Second, I didn’t check the new guy’s work. As it turns out, he connected the winch line and the bull rope with a Strandvise he’d found on the back of the truck. The Strandvise had four 3/4-inch nuts slid onto the bail, which were not removed when connected. Third, I was in the line of fire, standing directly under the bed winch that was pulling the 65-foot pole through a right-of-way. When the Strandvise broke, the 3/4-inch nuts shot straight down, hit me on top of the head and knocked me out. Finally, other than a short conversation, a job briefing hadn’t been performed, nor had the team performed a job hazard analysis or identified critical steps, hazards and controls. No specific person was held accountable for tasks being performed. Remember, this was the 1980s; I call them “the days before safety, when everyone did what they thought was right in their own eyes.” How things have changed.

Six Simple Steps
Today I train employees to identify at-risk behavior, critical work steps and potential hazards; control barriers; and become responsible crew members. In my opinion, one of the best tools for developing safe employees is the safety coaching observation process, which consists of six simple steps that enable workers to participate in positive conversation about what is taking place on the work site. It’s important to follow each step in the order listed below.

1. Introduce yourself and observe work. The key here is to watch what’s happening as employees perform their work tasks. The observation should focus on worker behaviors.

2. Comment on safe work practices. This will help to reinforce the crew’s safe actions. An inquisitive approach allows workers to open up and speak about their safe behaviors.

3. Ask questions about at-risk behaviors. Much like Step 2, questioning a worker about an unsafe act allows him or her to explain the at-risk behavior. Always get the worker’s viewpoint before trying to change behavior. This will keep the “walls” down and allow conversation to flow more freely.

4. After deciding upon the safest way to complete a task, get an agreement from each worker to work safely both now and in the future. I like this step because if an at-risk situation presents itself more than once, a worker frequently remembers the first coaching/mentoring event that took place and does the right thing.

5. Discuss other safety issues. Show interest and communicate the follow-up process.

6. Thank the crew members. Always thank each worker for the discussion and his or her commitment to work safely. If the situation merits it, present the workers with a safety recognition award. It doesn’t have to be an expensive award, just an acknowledgement of their safe behavior. This is a great morale booster that will plant a seed for others.

The safety coaching observation process is merely a discussion with a crew member. It reinforces safe work practices through positive discussion. The most effective way to deliver an impactful safety lesson or message is through an informal, nonthreatening discussion. Try it; it beats the heck out of the potentially life-threatening alternative.

About the Author: R. Neal Gracey serves as a safety specialist for Henkels & McCoy. He has more than 37 years of experience in outside plant construction, with specific expertise in fiber-optic and copper cable placement. Gracey currently works directly with management to train workers on the safety coaching observation process, daily job briefings and good-catch and near-miss reporting.

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R. Neal Gracey

R. Neal Gracey is an operations training manager for Henkels & McCoy Inc., a MasTec company.