Beyond Whack-a-Mole Safety: Inspection vs. Assessment

Regardless of how it’s done, workplace monitoring is a critical and longstanding function of the safety profession.  It’s also encouraging to see line managers and selected employees increasingly involved in this function as well.  The goal of safety monitoring is to gain a better understanding of the state of safety in the organization.  Leading and lagging indicators also play a role but are not included in this discussion.  So what is the best way to monitor the workplace?  To answer that question we need to first look at the three types of active safety monitoring in common usage.

  1. Inspections – The National Safety Council (NSC) Accident Prevention Manual (p. 184) defines inspections as activities designed “to locate and repair existing and potential unsafe conditions or activities.”  In short, inspections are performed to determine if workplace conditions and worker behavior is compliant with ES&H regulations, standards and good practices. 
  2. Audits – are defined by the NSC  (p. 246) as “a methodical examination of …procedures and practices to verify whether they confirm with good  ES&H practices….auditors base their judgment of compliance or deficiency on the evidence gathered.”  Audits generally have a larger scope than inspections and may employ large teams of auditors that are often independent (third party) from the area audited. 
  3. Assessments – There are several types of assessment: self-assessment, independent assessment, management assessment, etc., but regardless of the type, all assessments focus on performance rather than compliance and are intended to help drive continuous improvement.  Assessments do not ignore unsafe conditions and unsafe acts but their goal is to evaluate the effectiveness of work and safety system performance.  Like inspections, assessments are conducted either by teams or individuals.

Since audits and inspections have similar goals they are combined under the term “inspections” for the purpose of this article.  It is understood that some organizations use the terms inspections and assessments differently and/or interchangeably but the author has found the above definitions represent common practice.

Let’s first start with a quick example to illustrate the difference between inspections and assessments.  Say you had accident where an employee fell from a defective (missing non-slip safety shoe/foot) ladder.  You certainly might want to inspect all your ladders for similar and other defects.  This is a perfectly reasonable and good thing to do.  You might also, however, want to perform an assessment of ladder use safety.  Such an assessment would begin by observing workers actually using ladders.  From the work observations, employee interviews, and document reviews you would want answers to questions, such as:

  • Do workers know the attributes of a safe ladder?
  • Do workers check ladders for defects before use?
  • Does anyone ever check the ladders?
  • Is it acceptable for workers to use defective equipment? If so why?
  • Do workers know how to work safely from a ladder?
  • Do workers have a means of reporting defective equipment and getting it taken out of service?  Do workers ever use it?
  • Are safe ladders placed conveniently near the worksite?

The assessment would not stop at merely finding problems but would also look deeper for the whys of problems found.

Inspections – Advantages and Disadvantages

Inspections are a time honored activity in the safety profession and many safety practitioners pride themselves on their encyclopedic knowledge of rules and regulations and their ability to “write up” long lists of deficiencies on their inspections.  OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) even requires such inspections (monthly for General Industry and weekly for construction) with the entire worksite covered quarterly.  Most Behavior Based Safety efforts are also essentially inspections – where pre-defined behaviors are determined compliant or non-compliant via worker observations.  These behavior inspections frequently include immediate coaching and feedback to workers and generally include gathering behavior data that are used in a variety of ways.  The advantages and disadvantages associated with inspections include:




Inspections are an excellent way to determine if critical equipment   is safe to operate, such as checklist reviews of valve alignments, safety   equipment availability, etc.  Such   inspections can often be performed by trained but non-subject matter experts   using well thought out checklists. Inspections generally only identify compliance issues (i.e., unsafe   conditions and unsafe acts) which many safety experts view as merely symptoms   of deeper and potentially more serious safety system problems.  In addition, long lists of non-compliances   can be seen as “nit picking” by those inspected.
Inspections are generally easier to perform, quicker and more   straightforward than assessments. Inspections are   snapshots in time. Depending on the time of day, day of week, and work activity   at the time of the inspection determines the findings and it could vary   greatly from one point to another.
Since inspections are so straightforward there is often little room   for argument when findings are presented to those responsible. Organizations often must spend significant time dealing with   corrective actions for issues of little significance.  This can act as a diversion from more   serious issues important to performance.
Inspections are a good way to track and trend actions and conditions   important to safety.  For example, you   can do an inspection of desired employee behavior before and after training   to see if the training had the desired effect. Compliance is a low goal and does not lead to continuous improvement.  Some view compliance goals as striving to   do “just enough to get by.”
Inspections can point out problem areas for further analysis and   emphasis. You can’t inspect in compliance.    Compliance inspections tell you little about root causes.

Assessments – Advantages and Disadvantages

Assessments focus on the work and the elements that impact that work, such as strategic planning, worker qualification, procedures, training, staffing, organizational interfaces, communications, etc.  A combination of work observations, interviews, and document reviews are common assessment tactics.  The goal is to identify root cause problems – and good practices – to promote continuous improvement.  Assessments might evaluate a single process or an entire facility and are conducted by teams as well as individuals.  Routine self and independent assessment is an expectation for many high reliability organizations, including commercial nuclear power plants and the national defense laboratories.  The advantages and disadvantages associated with assessments include:




Assessments focus on work performance giving the organization a better   understanding of what is actually happening in their facilities.  (Recall the VIP managers on the Deepwater   Horizon actively inspecting for slip, trip, and fall hazards while completely   missing the ongoing safety-critical well capping effort that was rapidly   turning into a disaster.) Assessments generally take considerably more time than inspections.
Assessments note non-compliances, negative trends, etc., and use them   as prompts to help determine areas where a deeper look for the root causes of   those deficiencies is indicated. Assessments are harder to do.  Assessors   must be knowledgeable in the area assessed and trained in the assessment   process.
Assessments generally produce fewer findings for the organization   than inspections of similar duration and scope. Assessments can be more expensive than inspections.
Assessments are an excellent way for managers to partner with their   employees to seek safer and better ways to perform the work. Assessment findings often require considerable assessor judgment making   them potentially controversial.

What’s the Answer – Inspections or Assessments?        

Comprehensive feedback is necessary to truly understand where you are in your safety journey.  Inspections can add value to any safety effort as indicated in the advantages shown above.  But traditional compliance inspections that target conditions, and the more recent behavior based observations programs that target behavior compliance, can’t be the end of the story.  In too many cases we’ve put too many resources and too much finite safety energy into compliance based safety inspections and observations, often at the expense of an effective assessment process.  We need to look beyond the symptoms and get to the root causes.  If not, we are doomed to “Whack-a-Mole” safety where the same safety problems recur over and over again.  Assessments help us make the leap from Whack-a-Mole safety to a more productive promotion of continuous improvement.  They also help us move from a fixation on symptoms and compliance to a deeper understanding of the work and the safety of its performance.  As safety great Dan Petersen stated over 30 years ago in his classic, Techniques of Safety Management, “If we deal only at the symptomatic level we end up removing symptoms and allowing root causes to remain thus leading to another accident.” (p. 17). This is every bit as true today as it was in 1978.


National Safety Council, Accident Prevention Manual for Business and Industry: Administration and Programs, 13th ed. 2009, Itasca, Il.

Petersen, Dan. Techniques of Safety Management, 2nd ed. 1978, McGraw-Hill.



James Loud

Written by James Loud

Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations. Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.

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