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James Kline


Safety and the Gemba Walk

Lean safety goes beyond human error and OSHA compliance

Published: Wednesday, November 9, 2016 - 15:48

The United State Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that $60 billion is lost annually from workplace injuries and illness. Using the administration’s $afety Pays Program calculator, 20 carpal tunnel syndrome injuries will cost a company $1,260,000 in direct and indirect costs. A single back injury would cost $101,933 total. This makes safety a prime target for risk analysis.


While safety programs have several names, they can be broken down into three broad approaches: 1) a linear approach where either human error or a mechanical failure causes the accident; 2) a systems approach that views accidents as more complex, where human error, mechanical failure, and the environment could all contribute; and 3) lean safety.

Although lean safety isn’t normally considered a safety approach because safety, employee involvement, and continual operational improvement are all linked in the Toyota Production System (TSP), the philosophy and associated approach make it a viable alternative to the other two approaches.

It should be noted that in all cases in the United States, compliance with OSHA regulations is required. Consequently, there is a safety bureaucracy that maintains the paperwork and conducts OSHA compliance audits. In each case the responsibility for safety is management’s and the safety bureaucracy. However, with lean safety, employees are also responsible. Safety is an integral part of the organizational culture, as is operational performance.

The investigative approaches to an accident vary depending on the emphasis. In the first approach the cause is viewed as either human error or mechanical failure almost exclusively. The second allows for a more interactive cause. While human error or mechanical may be the determinant cause, it might also be a combination of both, or some environmental factor. Lean safety focuses on the cause of the accident, including any environmental contributors, and less on the individual.

In the first two approaches, there is a bias going into the investigation. The bias is that the individual is at fault. Where the determination is mechanical failure, the redesign of parts and equipment and frequent compliance inspections are mandated. In lean safety, redesign and workplace layout might also result. As for inspections and compliance, they are regular occurrences, part of the gemba walk.

The gemba walk

The gemba walk is a structured methodology that is part of TPS. Gemba is the Japanese term for the shopfloor. Michael Bremer, author of How to Do a Gemba Walk, (Chicagoland Lean Enterprise Consortium, 2nd edition 2014), views the walk as part of the check and act steps, in the plan, do, check, act steps of the quality improvement process. The gemba walk affords the opportunity to see and learn what is actually happening on the shop floor. This approach is different from the OSHA compliance audit, which seeks to identify and correct any OSHA standards violations.

In a gemba walk, the emphasis is on identifying both operational and safety problems. Some of the questions asked are:
1. Are employees working in a more vertical, as opposed to horizontal, posture? An ergonomically correct posture, which is more vertical, helps reduce repetitive injuries and workers compensation claims.
2. Is the placement of machinery, or the general work environment, the safest possible? This helps reduce on the job injuries.
3. Can employee motion be reduced, while accomplishing the same amount of work in the safest manner possible? This combines operational efficiencies with safety.

Risk analysis and the gemba walk

Thus, the gemba walk can be an important aid in any safety program and risk analysis. This is because it goes beyond the paperwork and narrow OSHA focus to the actual happenings on the shop floor. The best way to show the complementary nature of the gemba walk is to provide an example—the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). USPS’s approach to safety is that accidents are linear. Further, the employee is always at fault. USPS has a large safety bureaucracy geared toward OSHA compliance. Accident reports, worker compensation, and safety complaint forms are maintained. There is even job safety analysis (JSA) for all jobs performed on the shop floor. Each shift has a safety committee. There are also weekly safety talks. Paper-wise, USPS looks good. However, when one looks at the types of OSHA fines across USPS, one sees repeated violations and multiple violations in most processing plants. This raises a red flag as to why.

A risk analysis and gemba walk would determine a number of things. First, an examination of accidents and a comparison with the JSAs would find that trailers are to be locked in place, and the driver is to check the trailer before leaving. Yet, several forklifts have fallen off the back of trailers because either the truck wasn’t properly locked in place and moved as the fork driver was backing out, or the driver didn’t check to see that all work was completed and drove away while the forklift was backing out.

Second, the safety talks have been changed from an hour talk in a quiet room, to 10 minutes on the shop floor. Assuming one can hear the presentation; safety is demonstrably given less time and importance.

Finally, management isn’t enforcing the JSA and safety rules. For instance, when hauling equipment with a tower, only equipment with like hookups are supposed to be towed together. Yet, often one sees the driver hauling equipment that has different hookup points past management with nothing being said.

None of these items—ensuring that trailers are locked and drivers check to see the trailer is clear before leaving, being able to hear the safety talk, and hauling different types of equipment—could be effectively assessed except through a gemba walk.


Safety is an important cost item for any organization. This makes it a viable item for risk analysis. However, risk analysis can’t be limited to a paperwork review. To get a complete picture, a gemba walk needs to occur.

First published Sept. 24, 2016, on the CERM Risk Insights blog.


About The Author

James Kline

James Kline is a Senior Member of ASQ, a Six Sigma Green Belt, a Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence and a Certified Enterprise Risk Manager. He has over ten year’s supervisory and managerial experience. He has consulted on economic, quality and workforce development issues for the City of Corvallis, Benton County Oregon, the State of Oregon and the League of Oregon Cities. He has also published numerous articles related to quality in government and risk analysis.