Safetip #95: Use Focus Groups During a Safety & Health Change

September 06, 2017
By Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

This week’s Safetip is about using focus groups to evaluate changes designed to improve workplace safety and health.

Collect Data on Changes Designed to Improve Safety & Health

According to a guidance document on evaluating safety and health changes in the workplace, published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), EHS managers should look carefully at changes made to improve safety and health. They should evaluate whether: 1) a workplace change designed to improve safety and health was effective, 2) its implementation was effective, and 3) the results show any improvements. Examples of changes include: a new ventilation system to improve air quality, a new training course, a change of equipment, etc.

More specifically, a workplace change should be evaluated by collecting the following three types of data, according to NIOSH:

  • Conditions before the change.
  • Information about how the change was made.
  • What happened after the change was made.

Guidance and Tips on Focus Groups

The NIOSH document mentions many ways to collect relevant data, including records (e.g. injury rates, near misses), , one-on-one interviews, focus groups, observations of behaviors, and environmental metrics (e.g. air sampling, noise monitoring).

Focus groups gather information and opinions focused on one subject from a small group of people (NIOSH recommends about 8 to 10 members). During focus group discussions, insights can emerge that might not have emerged during one-on-one interviews.

Focus groups can be used in all stages of making a safety and health change, from planning to determining the effectiveness of the change. Here are guidance and tips from NIOSH on focus groups:

  • Recruit participants with similar characteristics (e.g. job classification).
  • Hold separate group discussions when you want opinions from supervisors and the employees they supervise.
  • Develop a list of discussion topics ahead of time.
  • Determine the amount of time to be spent on each topic (good discussions usually require about 1.5 to 2 hours).
  • Design questions in such a way that they encourage discussion. Don’t ask questions that get short answers like “yes” or “true”.
  • Start the session with an “ice breaker” that gets everyone to talk. Make sure everyone knows that they are expected to contribute.
  • Have an experienced note-taker attend. If you can get all participants’ permission, record the session (audio or video).
  • Afterwards, review the notes, recording, or transcript and summarize major points. If a transcript is prepared, be sure to substitute fictional names for the names of actual participants.
  • Make sure discussions remain confidential.

Information from focus group discussions should then be analyzed to determine the effectiveness of a change.

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