BackgroundThe WHO surgical safety checklist (SSC) is known to prevent postoperative complications; however, strategies for effective implementation are unclear. In addition to cultural and organizational barriers faced by high-income countries, resource-constrained settings face scarcity of durable and consumable goods. We used the SSC to better understand barriers to improvement at a trauma hospital in Battambang, Cambodia.MethodsWe introduced the SSC and trained data collectors to observe surgical staff performing the checklist. Members of the research team observed cases and data collection. After 3 months, we modified the data collection tool to focus on infection prevention and elicit more accurate responses.ResultsOver 16 months we recorded data on 695 operations (304 cases using the first tool and 391 cases with the modified tool). The first tool identified five items as being in high compliance, which were then excluded from further assessment. Two items—instrument sterility confirmation and sponge counting—were identified as being misinterpreted by the data collectors’ tool. These items were reworded to capture objective assessment of task completion. Confirmation of instrument sterility was initially never performed but rectified to >95% compliance; sponge counting and prophylactic antibiotic administration were consistently underperformed.ConclusionsStaff complied with communication elements of the SSC and quickly adopted process improvements. The wording of our data collection tool affected interpretation of compliance with standards. Material resources are not the primary barrier to checklist implementation in this setting, and future work should focus on clarification of protocols and objective confirmation of tasks.