The Critical Role of Data in Effective Safety Programs

It is time to put the traditional challenges faced by safety programs behind us.

More and more frequently, health and safety experts rely on published standards to design and operate their occupational safety programs. These standards, such as the OSHA regulations or the increasingly popular OHSAS 18001, suggest clear actions to take to create a safety program. Quietly tucked at the bottom of OHSAS is a final requirement to "measure and improve" the safety program.

When trying to design the fastest car in the world, you wouldn't leave the speedometer off until the car has been finished -– it would be the first thing you attach to the car so you can measure your progress toward the goal of speed with every modification and would-be improvement. Similarly, when providing guidelines for achieving an optimized safety program, the placement of the "measure and improve" requirement at the end of the list indicates an oversight. Continual improvement should be communicated as something that occurs throughout the entire process, not as an afterthought. Arguably, designing for continual improvement is the most important principle to follow because none of us can guarantee success with early attempts at safety improvement.

Furthermore, the standards neglect to offer substantial guidance as to how safety managers can achieve this ongoing measurement and improvement. In order to fully answer the question "How do I make measurable improvements to my safety program?" you would have to amass the full set of safety-related data collected by all of the different locations in your organization and analyze all of that disparate data to identify areas for improvement –- quite a daunting task. Fortunately, a new generation of technological capabilities will make this task manageable. A well-designed safety software system should be able to fully automate the data collection and, increasingly, the data analysis process, making successes and failures easily measurable and continual improvement more achievable.

The first generation of safety software was designed to make organizations more efficient by eliminating the paper-based recordkeeping of the past. Streamlining the sharing and communication of information allowed safety personnel to spend less time on administrative tasks and focus more time on safety initiatives.

Efficiency is a measurable and notable achievement, and giving safety professionals more time to "do safety" undoubtedly has improved outcomes. However, the emerging generation of technology will go beyond data management and alleviation of administrative burdens. It will analyze your safety program's data to provide you with actionable information about what's working, what's not, and areas in need of improvement. This newly elucidated information should be information you couldn't possibly have achieved without the technology; calculators and Excel spreadsheets simply lack the computing power required to find the insightful gems hidden in the depths of your data.

More succinctly, this next generation of safety technology should fundamentally change the way health and safety professionals are making decisions for making a safer workplace.

Breaking Down Barriers
With the greater analytical capabilities of newer software, more data will mean more improvements. For many organizations, however, the full set of safety data is siloed across numerous functions and systems and is not collected in a manner designed for cross compilation and analysis. The goal of learning and improving from a comprehensive set of safety data has, unfortunately, not been a primary design consideration of the efficiency-focused software systems.

As a common example, as soon as an incident occurs at many organizations, all information and records are handled by the incident management software system, which is a different system -- often from a different vendor -- than the software system used for JHAs. The records in incident management systems are designed to create optimal results for incident management efforts, not to enable the safety department to learn from mistakes and help prioritize efforts that are, for example. part of the hazard identification and control processes of a JHA program. The two systems often will use different language to describe the same issues. Thus, when trying to compare the two sets of data -– prevention data from JHAs with incident data from incident management – it's almost impossible to draw conclusions because of the disparate formats and vocabularies used in recordkeeping.

Previously, tools have not been in place to utilize all safety data in a way that was fully actionable across the entire safety team. However, with the newfound ability to constantly mine a huge set of data, cross-functional information will become much more valuable to the safety team. In order to fully leverage your data, a single software vendor will need to supply a solution used across your entire safety team or each software vendor will need to agree upon a common style of recordkeeping.

What Can Your Data Do for You?
Now that you are collaborating across functions to create as robust a set of data as possible, the question arises, "How, exactly, can all of this data ensure that my safety program is improving?" The next generation of software will leverage your organization's data to solve two issues fundamental to safety programs.

The first is an age-old conundrum: Driving toward optimized safety means preventing injuries before they occur, but how do you know that you have prevented something from happening? Traditionally, safety managers have justified the value of their teams' efforts through tangibles such as number of JHAs or audits performed annually or compliance with regulations. Ultimately, however, these tangibles prove more about the cost of safety efforts, not their value -– the only available measurement of improvement would be to see a rise in the number of annual JHAs, which indicates nothing of the value of the JHAs performed.

The second issue is the other side of the same coin. It is more than likely that your team feels overwhelmed by their extensive daily responsibilities. These efforts are the standard tools for safety teams, identified by academics as generally effective at preventing injuries. But you know your organization is unique and what is effective for other organizations is not always effective for yours. Essentially, your safety team is spinning their wheels with as many efforts as they can possibly execute, without much insight into which of their efforts are concretely effective. It is exhausting and potentially demoralizing for your team to try numerous initiatives without feedback as to how effective each effort was.

By collecting all of the relevant data in a standardized fashion and utilizing a centralized system to constantly analyze that data, there would be measurable insight into both of these challenges. For the first time, by comparing the full set of leading indicators and the full set of trailing indicators, you and your team could truly know that a deliberate effort to control a risk actually resulted in prevention -– or that it hadn't, and that you can confidently abandon that particular effort in the future. While these factors are currently monitored for the most serious of risk and prioritized safety initiatives, it's nearly impossible to monitor the effectiveness of all safety decisions against outcomes in near misses and incidents.

Strides in Safety
Safety professionals should watch for the trend of significant strides made in safety efforts based on the deeper insight that technology can provide. More importantly, as a safety professional, you should no longer be satisfied with technology that makes your team more efficient -– you should expect your technology to deliver actionable insights that you could not have identified on your own. It is time to make the traditional challenges faced by safety programs –- access to data, functional barriers, and the ability to efficiently crunch data –- challenges of the past. The engine that will drive that forward movement is technology that enables the continual improvement of safety programs.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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