Employers need to measure and manage what they do to create safe behaviours that will produce safe work environments.
I have been in the safety business for too long to remember. It is, however, not difficult to remember the continuing debate about leading indicators for safety excellence.
In the 1970s, we believed that there was a better way to evaluate safety besides counting injuries. It was a time when thinking about total loss control and counting losses of every kind started to feel clumsy and not very enlightening. In the 1980s, influential safety theorist Dan Petersen and others confirmed that there are reliable measures of safety outside of counting injuries, and we should not take too much pride in the fact that we have not had one.
In the 1990s, leading management thinker William Edwards Deming taught us that counting what we do was much more important than the outcome. We learned about the importance of fishbone diagrams, clearly demonstrating that inputs produce outputs. If we wanted to change the outcomes, we had to focus on the inputs, or what we were doing to create the outcomes.
In the last twenty years, most of us are convinced that measuring injuries reveals how lucky we have been, and not how stellar our safety-management systems and behaviours have been. So why are governments and organizations still stuck on repeating what turns out to be almost a useless exercise in evaluating our ability to manage work-related risk?
Measuring safety by counting our failures is illogical, as this approach is based on the belief in human perfection — and humans are far from perfect. And having no injuries at all does not mean that we were safe. We have all had personal experiences when we have done something dangerous, but got away unscathed.
Similarly, a corporation can have zero injuries over a period of time by doing absolutely nothing to enhance the safety of the people working there. It could possibly have created that result, or it could be just a matter being lucky. That alone makes counting injuries a very unreliable way of measuring the existence of safety at our workplaces.
As well, the concept of setting unachievable perfection goals as stretch objectives — or goals with a high and difficult level of success — is believed to be a source of frustration to organizations. As William Bruce Cameron says, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
That being the case, it makes more sense to count what we do and see if there is a correlation between our actions and the ensuing results. This, for the most part, is how we measure and manage the production of our goods and services, so why would we not use the same approach to measure whether we are producing our goods and services in a safe way?
It is far more accurate to measure what a company does to create safety and see if they have accomplished it by looking at the evidence. Although measuring what we do to create safety is a lot more work than just waiting for an injury report to be submitted, this approach offers a lot more accuracy if done correctly.
The safety profession has long engaged in discussions about what makes a good leading indicator. A leading indicator is an observable and recordable measure that measures prevention efforts prior to an injury. Typically, these indicators are proactive and offer both physical and behavioural evidence indicating that a desired safety outcome will occur.
A good example is the gas gauge in our vehicles: if we fill up our car with gas (a behavioural measure) and the indicator tells us it is full (a physical evidence), it is unlikely that our trip will be disrupted by running out of fuel. Waiting for gas to run out and counting the number of times to prove that we have managed our gasoline volumes seems a bit silly — just like counting workplace injuries as a lagging safety indicator does.
We have also learned the following over the years: i) Behaviours don’t lie; ii) How people think and feel about safety matters; and iii) Whether the physical nature of the workplace is where it needs to be.
The physical nature of your workplace — along with the behaviours and thoughts of the people in your company — can be measured and observed. The key is to ensure that we are clear about where we would like those things to be and how close to your vision are you.
In short, we need to measure and manage what we do to create safe behaviours that will produce a safe environment. If we look and listen carefully to what is actually happening around us, we will accomplish the goal of safety excellence, and there will be very few injuries, if any, to count. Now that is measuring — and counting — what counts.
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