Checklists, Step Counters, and Workplace Safety

Updated: Jun 25, 2019

Each year there are thousand of people that either get a step counter as a gift for Christmas or buy one for their self toward the end of the winter. Armed with a renewed motivation (because it is likely not the first time) they ether set a daily walking goal (probably around 10,000 steps) or join a Step Challenge. And for a while this works.

They track their steps, reach their target, beat their friends total, they may even lose a couple pounds or inches over the course of a few months. Then something happens. They forget to check their step total one day, then two, then three. Or maybe the challenge stops running. Eventually all of the progress they had made watching their steps is gone and in many cases their health and fitness levels are lower than when they started.

Misdirected Focus

Why does this happen to so many well-intentioned people? There are many possible reasons however one of the main reasons is because they were paying attention to the wrong thing – the number of steps. By concentrating on the number of steps all they achieved was more steps. This means something for a while but eventually they are just steps. Without focusing on the reason they were taking all those steps – lower weight, improved fitness, or maybe a larger social circle – they were doomed from the start. If you’re not careful, using checklists in your safety management system is no different.

A well-constructed checklist provides the user with a tool to guide them through a process. If the checklist is constructed appropriately, it will allow for creativity in completing the task while maintaining the required level of standardization to ensure a consistent outcome regardless of the end user. Worker safety (or patient safety in the health care industry) improves, tasks become more efficient, and hazard mitigation become more effective. But if the goal is to get people to complete the checklist, then that is all that will happen, they will complete the checklist.

For doctors, these steps [preventing infection] were no-brainers. However, once the checklist was established and enforced, the ten-day line-infection rate went from 11% to zero. - Dr. Atul Gawande, Women's Hospital Boston, MA

Communicate Direction

Until they don’t. And there are many reasons why someone doesn’t complete a checklist, but the main reason is that they see no value in it. Some people are quick to point out that using checklists is a requirement in their company and if personnel don’t use them they could face disciplinary action. Wonderful, they will make marks on the checklist to avoid ‘getting in trouble’ but rushing through a form and scratching down a few check marks on the way to completing the checklist is not likely what you envisioned when you created the checklist.

Assuming the checklist has been created adequately, the focus must quickly turn from establishing the checklist to a need to use it en route to a larger objective – improving safety, reducing errors in the final product, or maybe getting the job completed faster. Whatever the reason for using the checklist, that is your new focus: use the checklist to achieve some other ultimate goal.

Remaining Vigilant

If using the checklist is a vital part of reaching the objective then your final step is to enforce the use of it. The moment it is recognized that the checklist is not being used as intended, it must be dealt with appropriately and publicly. This is not to say that you embarrass your work force,  but it does mean that everyone is aware that using the checklist to reach their team goals is an expectation and not a suggestion. If the goal can be achieved in a consistent manner without the use of the checklist, then your final step is to assess the relevance of the checklist with the ultimate goal being whether or not to modify the checklist or remove it from the system completely.

Establish, implement, enforce

The standardization of tasks is one way to help ensure processes are as efficient (lean) and effective (six sigma) as possible, and the use of checklists is one way to achieve standardization. However, in order for checklist to receive a check mark themselves, they must be established correctly, implemented appropriately, and enforced endlessly.

Quote source:

1. How Checklists Can Save Lives – and Your Business. Retrieved from on March 21, 2018.