Coaching Leaders on Hazard Identification

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By John Wolfe, former SR Director – Operations Integrity Operations, Suncor Energy

Can you identify minimum 6 safety hazards in the picture below in 60 seconds? If not, you might want to read the article to get up to speed. Find answers at the end of the article.

Hazard identification

Image source: National Safety Council

As management, we are ultimately responsible for the safety of our workers. It is our responsibility to:

  • fixate on where the next failure could happen
  • strive to uncomplicate operations
  • respond to low level signals seriously and not wait for incidents to happen
  • ensure measures are in place to identify early warning signs
  • discover the true causes when something fails and question the whys when things go right

Frequent site visits to check the state of operations are key to respecting the above responsibilities. They allow for formal observations such as physical conditions or behavioural based audits which in turn are necessary to evaluate organization’s safety culture and  commitment.


Frequent site visits to check the state of operations are key to fulfilling our management responsibilities


But in my 30 years of experience, I have seen many people in senior management reluctant to conduct site visits. Mostly because they lack the necessary knowledge for hazard identification, without which they feel rather intimidated by the workers, who they think might know more than them.

But hazard identification at management level only demands good observation. With a little effort and practice we can train ourselves to confidently conduct effective and efficient site observations. 

To begin, we need to start with the fundamentals—housekeeping.


A high level of housekeeping in a facility is a precursor to finding good programs, processes, basic safety culture, and organizational values. It is important to determine if all employees are obliging their housekeeping responsibilities. It is critical for every employee to do his/her share, in order to make the plant clean and safe.

But what does ‘Good Housekeeping’ look like in an industrial facility? A plant where all employees are doing their share of housekeeping exhibits:

  • Lack of debris and trash
  • Walking surfaces free from tripping, slipping, and stumbling hazards
  • Orderly arrangement of storage and work equipment
  • Aisles marked and clear
  • No pools of oil or water
  • No visible leaks and drips
  • No steam leaks
  • Hoses wrapped up, coiled, and stored
  • Good signage and lighting

Most industrial facilities have ‘General Rules’ that workers are required to follow. Some commonly found and widespread ‘General Rules’ include:

  • Emergency equipment must be plainly marked and free from any obstacles
  • Danger zones must be clearly identified by visible and physical barricades (barrier chains, barricades etc). Only authorized personnel are allowed within these areas.
  • Equipment must not be operated unless all guards and safety devices are in place
  • Personal Protective Equipment must be worn in process areas or other hazardous areas
  • Flammable or corrosive liquids must be stored and transported in approved containers
  • Lights at exits and safety showers must be in proper working order and in service at all times
  • Safety showers and eyewash fountains must be unobstructed and accessible at all times
  • Good housekeeping practices are to be followed at all times
  • Only authorized personnel may operate plant equipment
  • All unsafe practices and conditions must be corrected as promptly as possible, and reported to the immediate supervisor at the first opportunity
  • Non-work injuries that could become aggravated on the job must be reported

Senior management in Factory Workshop

Other physical observations

Other than housekeeping, you should observe the following physical observations during the site visit:

  • Equipment and Tools
  • Hazard Controls
  • Emergency Equipment
  • Personal protective equipment
  • Hazards
  • Behaviour based

Equipment and Tools

  • Floors / Working Surfaces (Clean & Unobstructed)
  • Lockers / Cupboards (Clean & Orderly)
  • Desks / Tables
  • Aisles, Stairs & Passageways
  • Egress / Exits
  • Ventilation (fume hoods, welding fume extractors)
  • Lighting
  • Work Stations
  • Filing Cabinets
  • Waste disposal containers
  • Stacking and Storage
  • Cramped Quarters
  • Blind Corners
  • Exposure to Moving Stock and Traffic
  • Unsecured Items Overhead
  • Restricted or Prohibited Areas
  • Hazards from Nearby Operations
  • Sharp Edges or Burrs
  • Barricades
  • Painting, Insulation, General Repair
  • Equipment & Tools:
  • Right for the Job ?
  • Used Correctly ?
  • In Safe Condition ?
  • Carried or Stored Properly ?
  • Inspected and Coded Properly ?

Typical equipment and tools to look for include:

  • Electrical Cords / Cables (wire pinched, coating free of cracks)
  • Electrical Tools / Equipment
  • Electrical Power Bars
  • Electrical Substations and Battery Rooms
  • Hand and Portable Tools (Including GFI’s)
  • Lifting Gear, Hoisting, Material Handling Equipment (lifting, carrying, lowering, pushing, pulling)
  • Vehicles / Bicycles
  • Mobile Equipment
  • Ladders  (3 to 1 or 4 to 1 ratio incline, extended 3 rungs above platform, feet and rungs in good shape, tied in place)
  • Scaffolds/Platforms (tag in place, free from obstructions)
  • Utility Hoses/Utility Stations (no bulges in hose, coiled)
  • Pressure Vessels
  • Furnaces & Boilers
  • Industrial Storage Tanks
  • Machine Guarding & Caps (guard in place, caps on cylinders)
  • Grounding Systems (free of breaks, connections tight, lights)
  • Pressure Gauges/Regulators (no cracks)
  • Loading Racks & Docks (Life Rings/Ropes)
  • Ponds & Separators
  • Compressed Gases (labels, secured, caps on when not in use)
  • Chemicals & Fuels (Small Volume Containers)

Typical hazard controls include:

  • Exposed Insulation on piping/ceiling tiles/vessels etc.  
  • Signs & Tags
  • Labelling/Securing/Guarding
  • Lock-Out Procedures  
  • Barrier Chains/Barricades
  • Materials Labelling (WHMIS, Hazardous Service)
  • Warning Systems
  • Work Permits
  • Bull Plugs & Caps
  • Sewer Covers

Typical emergency equipment include:

  • Fire Extinguishers (punched, good condition, charged)
  • Exit Signs
  • Emergency Lights & Exit Signs  
  • Radios
  • Safety Valves
  • Shut‑down Isolation Devices
  • Showers & Eye Baths
  • Rescue Stations
  • Emergency Instructions
  • Emergency Generators & Battery Systems
  • Emergency Personal Protective Equipment

Typical Personal Protective Equipment include:

  • Eye Protection (CSA markings, side shields present)
  • Ear Protection (condition of cushions, compliance, fit for plugs)  
  • Respiratory Protection (training, fit testing)  
  • Head Protection (ANSI hardhat, no cracks)
  • Hand Protection (glove appropriate for hazard)
  • Foot Protection (CSA green patch, toes covered, tread)
  • Body Protection
  • Fall Protection (worn properly, lanyard tied off)

Typical hazards to look for include:

  • Biological Hazards (bacteria, moulds, fungi, sewage, contact with blood)   
  • Biological Hazards (Standing water present for more than four days)
  • Chemical Hazards (routes of entry inhalation, ingestion, absorption through skin)
  • Presence of Fugitive emissions, mist, vapour, dust, fumes, smoke.
  • Presence of labels, WHMIS symbols, MSDS.
  • Confined Spaces (hazardous gases, vapours, dusts, fumes, poor entry or egress, poor lighting)
  • Ergonomics (screen glare, poor workstation, non-adjustable keyboard tray, poor chair, poor worker orientation, wrist straight, elbows at 90 degrees)
  • Noise (>90 dB required, signs, process areas)
  • Temperature extremes (hot & cold) training on signs and symptoms of heat stroke, heat cramps.
  • Vibration (tools with dampening material on hand holds on jack hammers, tampers, etc.)
  • Radiation (signs, condition of enclosure)
  • Training (Alky, WHMIS, First Aid-CPR) cards current


Behaviour based observations:

Typical behaviour based observations to look for include:

  • Positions and Actions of People
  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • Clothing
  • Use of Tools and Other Equipment
  • Procedures
  • Performance
  • Attitude – what are they talking about?

Positions and Actions of People

  • Look for possible causes of injury, such as
    • Activity, Conditions and Substances
    • Striking or being struck
    • Temperature extremes
    • Being trapped in, on, between
    • Electrical current
    • Falling
    • Fumes
    • Overexerting
    • Hazardous exposure (acids, solvents, etc.)
  • Changing Position
  • Rearranging Job
  • Stopping Job
  • Hurrying
  • Running
  • Exposure to Moving Equipment
  • Wearing Proper Safety Equipment
  • Following Standard Practice
  • Using Proper Equipment and Tools
  • Following Rules, Procedures
  • Using Good Judgment
  • Striking Against (Struck By)
  • Caught Between
  • Falling
  • Climbing
  • Off Balance
  • Temperature Extremes
  • Electrical Current
  • Inhaling, Absorbing, Swallowing
  • Overexertion
  • Walking in Designated Aisles or Walks
  • Riding on Portable Equipment

Personal Protective Equipment

  • Is it adequate?
  • Is it in good repair?
  • Is it available?

Employees who do not wear the required equipment, ask yourself:

  • Why are they ignoring the requirement?
  • Is it a momentary lapse?
  • Is it habitual?
  • Is the equipment is uncomfortable or otherwise inconvenient?


  • Loose Clothing
  • Watches, Rings and Chains
  • Loose Shoelaces
  • Safety shoes or street shoes
  • Loose Shoe Soles or Heels
  • Ties, scarves

Use of Tools and Other Equipment

Are they:

  • Right for the job?
  • Used correctly?
  • In safe condition?

Look out for homemade tools and odd pieces of pipe or steel strap that look as if they might have been used instead of proper tools.


Are they:

  • Adequate?
  • Documented?
  • Understood?
  • Being followed?


  • Unsafe Acts (Rule Violations)
  • Job Knowledge
  • Initiative (Interest)
  • Following Standard Practice
  • Quality of Workmanship

Attitude – what are they talking about?

  • Preoccupied
  • Family Problems
  • Money
  • Illness in Family
  • Daydreamer
  • Worried
  • Angry
  • Quick-Tempered
  • Cooperative

A good auditor does not ever rely on memory, so I highly recommend you make a checklist with these questions, customized for your operations, and ensure you check everything mentioned on the list. To make auditing easier, quicker and efficient, you can upload your checklist on NimonikApp, available on iOS and Android. It’s convenient especially for remote locations as it works without the internet.

For any questions or comments on this article, please reach me via

Answer to the safety hazards quiz in the picture above:

Image source: National Safety Council