How to Make Safety Reviews Work for You

A safety review should reduce the likelihood of harm to participants, staff and property; serve as a vehicle for stakeholder education and improved institutional alignment; demonstrate a commitment to due diligence in safety; and boost morale among staff.

So why do many reviews, embarked upon with expansive optimism and openness, conclude with contention between reviewers and reviewed; real potential for increased future liability exposure; a demoralized staff; and program managers who regret having the review undertaken in the first place?

Safety reviews can have tremendous benefit, but they are not without risk. And usually, when reviews realize more risk than benefit, it is for the same recurrent reasons. And, an experience of a poorly managed review is one reason why program managers often prefer to avoid them.

International NGOs, international service/education programs, adventure education, sail training programs, etc. all share the challenge of operating with limited time, money and personnel. Sometimes one of the most compelling reasons to have a review is to get outside expertise to gauge the impact of the deferred maintenance and other compromises that are an adaptive effort to operate in the face of limited resources. However, it is also true that safety reviews require time, money and personnel, which is another reason why program managers can be unenthusiastic about undertaking a safety review.

However, the primary risk associated with having a safety review is the potential for increasing your liability exposure. Anything that appears in a report is discoverable should your institution be involved in a future lawsuit. It would not be in the organization’s interests should that report include unrealistic recommendations for unbudgeted expenditures; or damning statements about the program. A whitewash of safety issues is in no one’s interest either. Where you want to end up is with realistic, constructive feedback on your program with practical recommendations that translate into actionable plans.

The key to having a robust, productive process is understanding the various components of a review and being aware of the potential pitfalls within each:

            Goals – Realistically, what do you want to have happen during the review and what do you want the impact to be on your organization? Making your program “safe” is not a realistic option. Identifying opportunities to reduce the likelihood of harm is. Equally important is to identify what you do not want to have happen. Safety reviews look at the edges of an organization’s limitations. It is important to avoid having the review become the focus of all organizational conflicts. If you are not explicit about what the goals are and are not, then every agenda will find a purpose for the review to serve.

            Process – This is about deciding who will participate at what level and in what role. It is about how communication will be managed. Foresight and clarity at this stage are important. At the outset there is an impulse to commit to full transparency and participation. However, assume unforeseen sensitive issues will surface. It is preferable that the process become more expansive in its openness and inclusiveness as it progresses rather than heading in the other direction. It is recommended that early decisions about who is invited to participate at various levels; who gets to see the final report, etc. are conservative. This is about setting expectations. Be strategic.

            The Review Team – Having someone poke around in your organization second guessing decisions and evaluating performance is an intimate process and should be treated as such. While a review team should include outside parties, you need to have trust in the team. Hiring your friends is a little too cozy. Including board members can be excellent on a number of fronts but they can also be problematic. The team not only needs to have within its members the appropriate level of technical expertise, but should also contain sufficient administrative experience to appreciate the challenges of making decisions within budgetary limitations. One common mistake is setting up the review team to think that they need to document every aspect of safety or their integrity will be compromised in the discharging of their duties. The review team’s mission should be addressed in the goals and the scope. Communication and clarity are important. Roles, goals and process need to be explicit. The safety review works for the program and executes according to stated goals and scope.

            Scope – You may know exactly what issues you’d like addressed in the review. However, there are a number of ways to identify all the issues that your stakeholders view as important. A simple surveying tool can be distributed to field staff, admin staff and/or board members. Participant evaluations should be reviewed. Incident reports, end of program reports, etc can all be mined for input. Keep in mind that investigations of significant incidents rarely identify one poor decision or action as being responsible for the incident. More usually, it is a combination of events from multiple levels of an organization. Once you have a broad based list of potential issues, then you can make choices for putting together a productive strategy.

            Plan and Review – The specific plan for review should be defined by the scope and be consistent with your goals. Field staff and administrative staff interviews, document reviews, program observation, infrastructure and site inspections, etc. should be assigned to specific reviewers and executed.

            Debrief – This stage of the review may be particularly sensitive. Deciding who is invited to participate should be thought through accordingly. Reviewers should bring up for discussion all their observations, and analysis. They should share the rumors they’ve heard and their subjective impressions. Reviewers may share their ideas for solutions well beyond what should appear in the report. Everything useful may be discussed. In the course of this meeting, the shape of the safety report should be agreed upon between the review team and the program. One potential way to help encourage the frankness of the discussion without creating discoverable documentation of sensitive issues is to stipulate that all review notes be handwritten and destroyed once the written review is finalized.

            Report – The written report should reflect the stated goals and scope. It should document the goals, the process, the review team, the scope and the specifics of the review. It should then report its conclusions and recommendations. It is not in the organization’s interest to have unrealistically expensive and unbudgeted recommendations made, nor to have damning observations committed to print. It should include the program’s observed strengths as well as providing direction for changes. What is working well? What are the easy steps? What are the more challenging issues and the longer term, multiple front strategies? Recommendations should be general. There are occasions, most usually having to do with personnel and financial issues, when it may be appropriate and useful to have an additional confidential report prepared for the board or some subset of stakeholders.

            Report Response – The organization should document a formal response to the review summarizing the organization’s experience of the review and indicating degrees of agreement (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) with each specific conclusion and recommendation. Where there is agreement, the general implementation strategies should be included. Where there is disagreement, the rationale should be spelled out clearly. Any additional strategic moves resulting from the review should also be included here.

            Safety Plan – To maximize the benefit of the review, the organization should create a safety plan based on the review. It may vary from the reviewers’ recommendations and it may exceed the scope of the review. For each aspect of the plan, there should be a designated point person, a time frame and criteria for completion. Periodic reviews of the safety plan should be scheduled in as well.

Safety reviews should be an invaluable tool for any program. Maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks is a matter of awareness, forethought and attention especially early on in the planning process. If you manage the details well early on, the rest of the process should unfold in a manner that helps your organization do what it does in a more effective, professional and safer manner.  It should also assist in building a stronger more integrated organizational culture with a heightened awareness of health, safety and security.