Attributes of an Injury-Free Culture, Part 3: Measurement and Metrics

Five measures that influence behavior, attitudes, and culture in the organization will help you assess the overall health of the safety situation.

IN the previous two articles, we discussed the need for clear ownership and a driving focus on exposure in creating an injury-free culture. These two attributes in themselves may compel leaders to reorient their thinking around safety. There is a third attribute, however, where the injury-free culture truly begins to take shape: measurements and metrics. The culture we are trying to create is one where we focus on where the next accident is going to happen, what is happening to the culture and safety climate, and how the organization is evolving. This level of activity requires tools that dig deeper than end results. In this article, we discuss the key characteristics of measures required in an injury-free culture and considerations for developing the right set for your own organization.

The 'Holy Grail' Approach to Measurement
Organizations commonly search for the one all-inclusive safety measure that determines success or failure and for which they can hold leaders accountable. A lot can hinge on this single number, whether it's Lost Work Case rate, Total Recordable, or Medical Case rate (OSHA recordable rate in the United States). Yet, no single measure can reliably tell you whether systems, the culture, and safety leadership practices are aligned and driving performance to a predictable result. (Latching onto a single leading indicator is equally problematic.) Organizations compound the mistake when they fail to apply statistical analysis to the measurement; these numbers are subject to natural variation that may not accurately reflect exposure levels. As a result, we can inadvertently send messages that do not match reality, for example celebrating activities that have little real effect on injuries. This approach is unsatisfactory for another reason. Once you reach zero in a lagging metric, you are left with only two modes of performance: meeting the standard or failing it. There is no -1 in injury rate.

Rather than tie safety performance to this binary thinking (i.e., we are either going up or going down), the injury-free culture uses a set of metrics that paint a three-dimensional picture of performance. We look for information on the nature and severity of exposures, on the contributing factors in systems and practices, and on the alignment of organizational goals with goals in safety. We look for patterns. Lagging indicators do play a part and, when statistically analyzed, help us assess the effects of strategic safety activities. We see lagging indicators for what they are: lagging. Doing everything possible to prevent injuries requires a broad set of metrics that provides insight into the systems, conditions, and activities that create or reduce exposure.

Leading Indicators: A Challenge
We will sketch out a new set of metrics by beginning with a not uncommon scenario. The CEO calls you into his office and tells you he is very unhappy. Last year, he presented the "safest plant" award to a site that went a full year without a lost-time injury. Four months into the new year, however, the same site has already had three lost-time injuries, and it was discovered that during the "zero streak" there was at least one incident that went unreported.

The CEO gives you two weeks to make a recommendation on how your organization will measure safety performance going forward. You are allowed up to five measures that can be combined to a single number, but none of the five can be an injury rate lagging indicator. The five measures or single combined measure must correlate to injury rates. Correlation doesn't mean that in each and every situation they have to predict injury rates, but across a lot of organizations a correlation must be seen. This is a challenging road, but one that has been traveled before. The trail starts with the nature of incidents themselves.

Metric 1: Exposure
We begin by asking, what is the immediate cause of most injuries? Typically, injuries are caused by exposure created by an unsafe condition or an employee who is placed into an at-risk situation. The more exposure, the higher the probability of an undesired event; an organization with 100,000 exposures can expect between 0 and 4 undesired incidents, with a magnitude falling anywhere along the continuum of near-miss to fatality.

Exposure is a reflection of the alignment at the working interface, the intersection of facilities and equipment, procedures and the employee. When we connect the right tools and equipment in good working condition with a knowledgeable, skilled, and motivated employee following a current and accurate procedure, the probability of an undesired event is low--not zero, but extremely low.

The first measure in a zero-injury culture, then, is exposure. When an exposure is identified, we must then ask what encouraged or discouraged an employee to tolerate or accept the level of exposure? This questioning leads into discovery of the root causes and to the identification of our other four measures.

Metric 2: Safety and Health Programs
Taking one step back from exposure, we find safety and health programs. These programs are designed to deliver and ensure alignment at the working interface and typically fall into the several categories that cover both personal and process safety elements:

• Hazard recognition & mitigation
• Skills, knowledge, & training
• Policies & standards
• Exposure reduction mechanisms

The second measure is an evaluation of whether the organization has implemented the necessary programs and whether these programs are having the desired result in reducing exposure. One interesting and frustrating finding for many organizations is that sites with identical system configuration and independent audit scores often realize widely different outcomes. The answer to this problem leads us to our next metric.

Metric 3: Safety Climate and Culture
Safety and health programs function within the broader context of culture and safety climate. Safety climate refers to the level of interest and importance placed on safety by the organization's leadership. Culture refers to the unwritten assumptions that influence decision-making, attitudes, and beliefs and guides the behavior of those in the culture. Sustained over a long enough period of time, safety climate can become part of the culture.

Research identifies nine factors that independently correlate to safety performance. They also correlate as a group to safety performance. (See figure 1.) These nine factors can be grouped into organizational, team and safety factors. Interestingly, the first two factors are not safety-specific. Organizational factors include organizational justice and the relationship employees have with their immediate supervisor, the management team, and the organization itself. Team factors refer to the extent that team members treat each other with dignity and respect and whether they can rally together to accomplish a task. Safety factors include employee perceptions of the organization's commitment to safety performance, whether their safety concerns are addressed, and the extent to which employees are willing to talk to one another about safety.

The third measure has to be an evaluation of the factors that drive culture and organizational functioning. Fully understanding culture takes an understanding of the structure, mechanisms, and systemic consequences that drive behavior and performance.

Metric 4: Organizational Systems and Consequences
The root cause of an incident may trace back years to a decision that was made at a very high level. What we determine about staffing levels, supervisory development, promotions, budgets, or new projects introduces changes into the systems that provide consequences for organizational behavior. When we separate consequences from our declared performance targets, we reinforce old ways of doing things and, in some cases, undermine the change we are trying to create (e.g., telling employees they must report all injuries at the same time as providing attractive incentives for workgroups without injuries).

The fourth measure of performance is the level of alignment among values, words, and systems. The systems to measure and assess include:

• Selection and development for all levels
• Organizational structure: Staff level versus expectations, leader-to-worker ratio, etc.
• Performance management: What is evaluated, the effectiveness of the process
• Rewards and recognition: How are heroes created in the organization? What behaviors and practices are recognized or compensated?

This leads to the final metric: leadership.

Metric 5: Safety Leadership
Leaders make the decisions about the acceptable level of exposure, the safety climate and the type of culture that exists, and the systems to be implemented and that drive performance. In this case, it is helpful to narrow the focus to safety leadership. In the first part, we talked about how leadership must own safety. The fifth and final measure would be an assessment of safety leadership. There is a connection between cultural scores and the level to which leaders use safety leadership best practices.

Summary
The answer to the CEO's challenge is five measures that all influence behavior, attitudes, and culture in the organization. For an organization moving toward injury-free, these types of measures become the most frequently discussed and used to assess the overall health of the safety situation. In part four, we will discuss employee engagement and how it is pivotal to achieving increasingly longer periods of injury-free performance.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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