Your Year-End Safety Celebration Could Be Hiding Risk
We can't use lagging indicators—counting what has already happened—to evaluate our exposure to risk accurately.
- By Nick Goodell
- Jan 01, 2018
It's that time of the year when we reflect back on how our companies performed over the last 12 months. A common calculation is to look at recorded injury rates (using a variety of prescribed metrics) and pat ourselves on the back if we hurt fewer people than we had planned. I was just part of such a meeting, the typical construction company's periodic gathering of Safety, Project, and Engineering folks where the executives congratulated the team because only two people got hurt on a recently concluded project. There were high fives, awards, and lots of celebration (except from the two injured). But there is a fundamental problem with the way that most companies evaluate safety in the workplace. By counting the number of bad things that have been recorded, you see only part of the picture—the lagging indicators—which can cause potentially significant blind spots to risk exposure.
Consider instead evaluating safety performance with measures that don't require incidents to occur. Aside from issues with underreporting, misclassification of recordable injuries, or sloppy recordkeeping, I propose that workplace safety is much more than just the absence of adverse events. We can't use lagging indicators—counting what has already happened—to evaluate our exposure to risk accurately.
What if we measured other things the way most companies measure workplace safety?
Think back to a summer road trip. How did you gauge whether your vehicle was prepared to make the trip? Did you assess the condition of your car solely by counting the times it had broken down in the prior 12 months? For me, it would follow that my car is in excellent mechanical condition, ready for any road because it did not break down at all in the past year. Would you trust your family's safety solely by a lagging indicator? Evaluating your corporate safety risk management program is no different.
Instead, most of us measure a vehicle's condition using leading indicators: signs that predict a failure before it occurs. These include adherence to a recommended maintenance schedule, annual state inspections, and resolving odd things noticed during operation. If you change the transmission fluid and find metal in the oil, you can be sure of a problem. So why don't we use leading indicators to evaluate how prepared our companies are to manage risk in the coming year?
External pressures from regulators like OSHA, insurers, and customers conditioned us to use lagging indicators as a measure of safety. For these groups, this is a universal and straightforward way to evaluate for enforcement, intervention, premium increases, and past performance as a poor safety prediction tool. This paradigm will only worsen as OSHA becomes increasingly dependent on lagging indicators collected more broadly through electronic reporting requirements. We found that companies that often view a safety risk assessment as a measure of compliance have a higher exposure and cost of risk.
Putting Leading Indicators to Work
A more appropriate way to evaluate your performance is through the use of safety leading indicators. These are the collection and study of the conditions, behaviors, and attitudes that signal an environment where losses are more likely to occur.
Using our previous car analogy, one type of leading indicator is the "maintenance" that you performed on your team last year. This includes the training, education, certifications, and other credentials that your team has invested over the past year. How are you maintaining your folks, and how are those records being used? The structure of your programs should reflect a high level of proficiency in the types of work you are performing and expertise with the tools in use. Collecting the right kind of data will expose whether your company was going through the motions last year or if the workers were building competencies that are genuinely protecting your business from loss.
Through safety observation programs, best-in-class companies are regularly collecting valuable data about the behaviors and conditions that are occurring on their work sites. A quality inspection program paints a real picture of how much risk you are exposed to and from which areas. Companies that hide behind "All Safe" inspection observations or use their inspection programs in a punitive way are missing the opportunity to collect real leading indicators of injuries. Aggregation of detail data in safety software allows the ability to drill down and compare risks across your company, your projects, your contractors, and crafts.
Big Data and Predictive Analytics
Innovative companies are continuously testing new and exciting sources of leading indicators. Attitude surveys that are traditional in the Human Capital departments are finding their way into use, with safety professionals looking to capture individual or cultural attitude toward risk appetite, which may be a precursor to injury.
Volumes of new data are coming to us from other sources, too. Sensors on vehicles, on equipment, and through wearable technology stream a wealth of useful information that can be used to predict loss with a high degree of accuracy.
"Big data" tools and modern analytics allow us further help to predict injuries by combining the multiple data feeds. Through the use of these advanced tools, we can develop some very sophisticated leading indicators, and present them in a way that is as actionable in the field as it is in the boardroom. Data once hidden in filing cabinets or complex programs can easily be mined for other purposes and integrated with safety management systems.
An accurate assessment of safety performance requires a move away from the traditional ways of using only historical loss data. To create a unique and personal approach, consider the following workplace safety tips:
1. Engineer programs that identify and mitigate the specific risks present on your projects. The formal job safety analysis process is instrumental in preventing workplace injuries.
2. Ensure that your focus follows the 80/20 rule—80 percent of your focus relates to active tasks; the other 20 percent includes historical problem areas.
3. When they see low incident rates, especially when nobody is hurt, many organizations see this as a reason not to do anything to reduce workplace injuries further. Don't fall into this trap.
4. Measure success by selecting a few key indicators to ensure you are always addressing the correct workplace safety topics.
5. Stop and celebrate all of the achievements that have made the workplace safer.
Where Is Your Focus?
What are you focusing on, and how will your approach in the next year get you greater results? These are real questions to consider if your goal is to drive processes that mitigate risk sustainably.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.