Safety Inspection ConKills and ConFoils

Having done SafetyNet inspections for almost a decade, I like to explore the data collected – the “whys” of the observations. They allow me to glean insight into the ability to forecast and focus from what we see in the observations. Keeping good people from getting hurt is always the goal. I called the idea “Lyonetics” for I recognized early in my career that those doing the work are good people and safety professionals need to help them out.

When doing inspections, I always picture the contributors (unsafe observations) as holes in a poorly lit room you must cross – that is your worksite. You can barely see the door, or success, on the far side. As you travel toward that goal, these holes are often unseen and you might encounter them as time passes on your journey to get to the door. Don’t allow the holes to remain unchecked – they must be addressed!

When unsafe observations are made, I file them into two discrete silos in my head. Each is based on the ability of the unsafe to be a contributor to an incident; if you remove those contributors, you remove the incident.

The first contributors are the worst – a ConKill. This is an observation that, if not corrected, will kill us almost every time. A good example is the use of safety tape at the edge of a shaft or excavation in hopes of protecting someone. When you see this, there is a significant disconnect in site safety because those installing did not understand the error and those in the area did not say “Dude….When you fall in you are going to take that tape with you. It’s not going to save anyone…who put this up?”. 

When Conkills are discovered on a project, they provide a huge opportunity to help correct the safety culture and the chance to back up a bit and think. Though inspections will identify some critical corrections, the system will recreate them unless you take the time to see where things went wrong and fix the process.

Though Conkills should never exist, when found they are a rare gift that enables you to easily forecast misfortune but also have the chance to work with good people to prevent that misfortune. I have found most individuals do the best they can with what they were supplied with and that includes their training. Take the time during audits to explain the concern and offer some practical suggestions to get things squared away. Be nice. Telling someone they did something wrong is of little value. You must get those good folks to understand why it was wrong.

The second set of contributors is Confoils.  These are often found, and likely won’t hurt or kill someone when discovered unless they are aligned with other contributors.  An example of a Confoil could be allowing the use of equipment routes shared by pedestrians. A number of workers could travel that path each day but one day a soil boring is drilled and then surrounded by…barrier tape. Picture the worker passing by who just got a call from the bank looking for the month’s mortgage. She is texting her husband for advice as a fork truck powers by. She looks up, sees it coming and steps backwards from the road (as we all would) to get out of the way. She falls into the shaft surrounded by the plastic barrier as she goes. Confoils, on their own, have the capacity to foil a good plan or not. It just depends on the other contributors, but in any case they must be sought out and removed from any safety system.  The Confoil in this instance was allowing equipment and pedestrians to the share the same route. The Conkill was the barrier tape which was exacerbated by the additional Confoil.

There are Confoils on any site and the goal must be to find them. When I see auditors with 90 observations for the day and one unsafe, they are in fact looking at things but not for the contributors we need to fix. It is interesting that 99% of the workers were wearing work boots – this is a worksite so of course they are. Taking the time to note that everyone is wearing safety glasses may be important in some environments but if your observations are indicating good compliance and your injuries are from other causes, then why should it continue to be observed?

My suggestions – focus on the conditions that can kill first. Conkills must be searched out and are always associated with “harmful energy or the lack of energy requirements for human life (lack of oxygen, food, warmth, water)” (Quilley, 2010). If there is a crane setting up (power line nearby), excavation being dug (gas line below not located), or people working at height (inadequate anchorage), that is where to focus. It is not important if someone is wearing his or her safety glasses when they fall.

Then focus on the smaller hazards that can foil someone’s day. When looking for Confoils, consider “what if” as you look. Consider the water bottle on the stairs, the light bulb that does not work; consider what could happen if someone were walking down stairs and reading Facebook updates on their phone. They could fall and get killed (unlikely) but it could contribute to something being broken. If the stair railings are not yet installed and someone fell (water bottle) with no rails to grab, bad things can happen. You get the idea.

Dr. William Haddon was right. If you remove or lessen the energy, you remove the event or lessen the severity. Find those contributors with energy, track them to correction but then share what you learned. Until someone sees observations as the removal of contributors to avoid a catastrophe, we are just counting things.


Quilley, A. (2010). The Emperor Has No Hard Hat (2nd ed.). Sherwood Park, Alberta: Safety Results Limited.



Written by TJLyons

Thomas (TJ) Lyons CSP, CRIS – Mr. Lyons is a safety professional living in Warwick, New York, working for Innovative Technical Solution Inc. of Walnut Creek, California. With a strong background in construction safety and industrial hygiene, he focuses on reducing or eliminating risk through proper planning, implementation of best practices and lessons learned at the project level with a focus on driving from risk management to risk elimination.Board certified as an Occupational Health and Safety Technologist and Certified Safety Professional, he is proud to have taken some of these skills to his local community. A past assistant chief, NY State adjutant fire instructor (hazardous materials) and EMT, he sees the need to drive safety from the field to the home as often as possible. In 2001, Mr. Lyons was awarded the IRMI Gary E. Bird Horizon Award for his efforts in implementing the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program on the first construction project in the state of New York. He has presented at the IRMI Construction Risk Conference and is often found heading up a table at the Construction Café. Mr. Lyons was a past chapter writer for the American Society of Testing of Materials (ASTM) and for the recent American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Construction Safety Management and Engineering Volume 1 and has recently penned a chapter on preplanning for the second edition currently in the works.

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