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Q&A: Why Your Safety Management System Needs Prejob Briefings

Feb 16, 2022

Safety professional man conducting a prejob briefing for his safety management systemAll industries benefit from stakeholder investment in safety and health. When safety professionals effectively explain risks and solicit feedback from their teams, everyone feels a greater sense of responsibility for safety outcomes, regardless of their position.

Prejob safety briefings are a useful tool for achieving those goals and strengthening your organization’s occupational safety and health management system.

Bill Connor, M.S., GSP, is a safety supervisor at Newell Brands and John Mulroy, Ph.D., CSP, is an assistant professor and director of Pennsylvania OSHA Consultation within Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Safety Sciences Department. We connected with these experts to discuss their recent Professional Safety article explaining why prejob safety briefings are an important part of safety management and how you can improve your existing process.

ASSP: Why is it important to give a prejob safety briefing, and are there situations where it's more important than others?

John: That is a great question. The importance of the prejob briefing is to ensure the organization achieves and sustains a tolerable level of operational risk and manages change safely. When the organization conducts a thorough prejob briefing before the start of routine and non-routine tasks, latent management weaknesses and resulting hazards can be identified, evaluated and controlled, achieving that desired state of tolerable risk before work starts.

Bill: Culturally, a strong prejob briefing process provides workers who face occupational hazards on the frontline a vehicle to express their concerns, receive validation for those concerns and achieve satisfactory resolution. That is an example of the value of worker participation and management commitment in a nutshell.

Now, whether there are situations where a prejob brief is or isn’t necessary is becoming debatable. For example, there’s substantial research revealing a high degree of serious injury and fatality potential associated with non-routine tasks, unplanned or emergency breakdown maintenance or non-production repairs. It makes sense organizations would conduct a quality prejob briefing before these unfamiliar tasks started.

John: But new research completed at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Safety Sciences’ doctoral program reviewed 20 years of OSHA inspection data for electrical workers. The researcher found a high degree of injury and fatality risk for electrical workers where nine out of 10 fatal contacts with energized conductors involved routine tasks. This may be due to the diverse hazards and tasks routinely performed by electricians, but this study also reported more than half the fatalities evaluated could be attributed to human factors, particularly misjudgment of a hazardous situation while performing routine electrical tasks.

This new research from IUP reinforces the importance of ensuring workers have a clear work scope with defined boundaries. In other words, worker authorization to stop if scope creep is observed. It also shows why it is important for the prejob brief to detail task procedures or instructions, including limitations, combined with open, two-way communication that freely challenges the planned and predictive effectiveness of existing layers of protection.

ASSP: What are the elements of a good prejob safety briefing?

Bill: The prejob safety briefing process is a tool used to ensure the work task is clear in scope and everyone understands what they are and — just as importantly — are not doing. Work sites must be evaluated prior to beginning work, particularly those aspects of the task which are likely subject to change during the duration of the job.

John: An effective prejob briefing focuses on identifying, evaluating and controlling or eliminating hazards and high-energy sources. The prejob briefing is a wholly participatory process that must include those who are involved in the work. All questions and concerns are addressed to the satisfaction of all involved. The prejob safety briefing is not finalized until all participants are comfortable with the work scope, controls and perceived risk levels. Open communication and respect are a necessity throughout the prejob brief so those involved can openly discuss concerns without fear of reprisal and feedback can be provided on how to achieve tolerable risk levels.

And while there are best practices for prejob briefings available, in our article we referenced OSHA’s vertical standards for power generation, transmission, and distribution as a great foundation for every prejob briefing process. That’s a great place to start if your organization hasn’t adopted the prejob briefing process for their safety management system.

Bill: We can easily describe what a quality briefing looks like: Let’s picture in our minds a job briefing in action. Workers and management standing in a circle having a conversation. We see mutual respect. No one is afraid to speak up. There is a walk down of the job site to identify hazards and any risk from adjacent work. A job safety analysis is reviewed or completed. Each layer of protection, including controls for energy and work permits, are tested for effectiveness. Team members understand their authority to stop work the moment work planned no longer aligns with work performed.

ASSP: What specific actions can safety professionals take today to improve the effectiveness of their organization’s prejob briefing process?

Bill: A step any safety professional can take right now to improve existing job briefs is to include questions that open conversation. Questions like:

  • What are the critical steps?
  • What mistakes could be made?
  • Are work authorization permits effective?
  • Can specified layers of protection fail, or are they inadequate?
  • Does each worker understand their role and their authority?

Instead of asking, “Is everyone ready?” which elicits a simple yes or no response, a better question would be, “What is the worst-case scenario you can imagine happening?” Asking direct questions also ensures clarity. For example: “Chris, has the crew walked down the lockout/tagout to ensure protectiveness? Have all workers on this task affixed their own locks?”

Other things to consider are allowing for role-playing, or maybe including photos of job locations with hazards to help workers further sharpen their skills.

Incorporating documentation — machine diagrams, up-to-date work procedures, facility drawings, job safety analyses or tooling manufacturer instruction manuals — in the prejob briefing process will also help workers better understand work scope.

John: Another aspect you should consider is providing past outcomes of this type of work. If there have been injuries, illnesses or near misses associated with the work scope, everyone should be aware and verification of all corrective or preventive actions should have been completed.

Bill: Frontline supervision commitment and safety leadership is key. Supervisors with a strong, supportive safety attitude are an essential component of a successful prejob safety briefing. With a positive supervisory attitude, workers will not be reluctant to voice questions or concerns during a prejob safety briefing, influencing overall risk communication and increasing worker participation in the safety and health process.

John: Perhaps most importantly, the prejob briefing training can teach employees how to utilize human performance tools to reduce the risk of human error. Dependent and independent verification, three-way communication, checklists, time out, self-checking, questioning attitude, stop work, peer-checking and use of the phonetic alphabet are excellent tools that significantly improve communication and reduce operational risk. 

ASSP: In your article, you say “what-if" questions make for a much more effective prejob safety briefing. Can you talk about them?

Bill: Anyone involved in both job planning and in-field prejob briefings has the authority, and the right actually, to challenge existing layers of protection such as engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE. An easy, intuitive way for the participants in the job brief to do this is asking “what if” before work starts.

John: It’s important to challenge each step of the defined task, particularly steps identified as critical, by asking what might happen if work scope expands, the work is or evolves to be non-routine in nature or the work as planned does not effectively reduce operational risk to tolerable levels.

ASSP: You also recommend a postjob briefing. What makes these postjob briefs important?

John: The postjob briefing provides the organization an opportunity to learn and continually improve its safety management system. If the work as planned didn’t align with the work performed and higher levels of operational risk were encountered, the postjob brief ensures data and worker feedback can be collected, analyzed and utilized to create robust corrective or preventive actions. It is critical to note here, whenever the required controls or individual layers of protection were not as effective as expected, further safety management interventions are necessary. Just as important is a process to ensure these corrective and preventive actions are assigned and tracked through completion, so the next time this work is planned and performed, tolerable risk is achieved.

The postjob briefing is exactly like the prejob briefing. It requires respect, open communication and the further clarification of work scope (particularly if the original scope was inaccurate during the prejob). Participants must also understand their respective responsibilities and accountabilities. This is where continual improvement happens. In Deming’s “plan, do, check, act” cycle, this is the check stage. It results in a robust prejob and postjob briefing process to find latent management weaknesses embedded in our safety management systems.


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