Improving Safety with a Risk Management Focus

The responsibility of safety personnel must change from being a worker focus to becoming a risk and safety consultant to management.


Depending on the nature of the business, they may possibly face some or all of the following accidental losses involving property, income, liability and injury to employees. Risk management professionals are responsible for managing these risks. Those who are in the risk management arena know all about avoidance loss prevention, loss reduction and retention when it comes to dealing with various risks faced by their organizations. When it comes to managing the risk associated with employee safety, the risk manager usually looks to the safety department or safety manager to address that area.

Safety management traditionally focuses on complying with the governing safety standards as promulgated by the state or federal jurisdiction. From this emanates the organization’s safety program, processes, procedures and practices. The focus of most safety programs revolves around the prevention and/or reduction of injury and illness involving the organization’s employees. The safety program starts off with a statement professing to value the employee and wanting to provide them with an injury-free workplace. The body of this program usually is a regurgitation of safety standards. Some of the more developed programs may also include specialized subprograms dealing with driving for the company, dealing with the public, substance abuse, etc.

Traditional Safety Program Shortfalls

One of the deficiencies of the traditional approach to safety performance management is the fact that most of the major interventions emanate from the evaluation of data regarding the previous year’s accidents and injuries experienced by the workforce. The source of this information is from internal accident investigation reports or data provided by brokers or insurance carriers. This analysis then establishes interventions to be utilized during the coming year to reduce the accidents and resulting injuries.
One of the shortcomings of this approach is that the improvement strategy is based on historical data, and the future is never exactly the same. Another issue is that generally the interventions are all focused on changing the behavior of the workforce by more training, retraining, emphasis of certain program elements, more rigorous inspections or though incentives or punishment. In the short term, these may result in some improvement, but in the long run, the results never live up to expectations.

An additional issue with traditional safety management, in general, deals with metrics. The most common measurement of safety performance involves how many incidents occur over a period of a year, with the two major measures dealing with frequency and severity of the incidents. These results are compared to averages published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or data the insurance carrier provides. The biggest issue is that these are outcome metrics and do not provide any information that identifies means or methods for improvement implementation, and more importantly, they do not assist in strategy deployment.

Sometimes, the data analyzed may not give a true picture of all the contributing causes, especially possible underlying ones. The loss information generally states what happened. For this information to be of greatest value it has to answer the questions associated with what, when, where, why, who and how. To get to the root cause of things, these words may have to be asked a number of times, especially the “why.”

A significant benefit of controlling the costs associated with accidents is highlighted in a University of Tennessee survey of a large population of contractors, which found that approximately 6-7 percent of the estimated cost of construction went into insurance and related expenses associated with worker safety and accidents. These same contractors reported a 1.5 percent actual profit from the same projects. It should be rather obvious that even a small reduction in the costs associated with worker safety should significantly improve these contractors' profit margin. In discussions with the participant in the study, it is indicated that they grasped this concept, but they did not seem to envision a structurally, effective or viable means of how to go about making those changes a reality.

A Holistic Approach

This requires a significant paradigm shift. Organizations need to look at safety more holistically—as an integrated part of the organization's activities in every endeavor associated with operations, not as a separate and independent function. If the organization is serious about keeping its employees' injury free and controlling the associated costs, then they not only need to look at the employees, but more importantly, the physical work environment, human dynamics, management systems, supervisory leadership styles, organizational culture and climate. All of these in one way or another influence the employee’s motivation, engagement, behavior, job satisfaction and the decisions they make, which sometimes may lead to an incident, injury or loss.

The responsibility of safety personnel must change from being a worker focus to becoming a risk and safety consultant to management. Assist people responsible for procuring work by evaluating the nature and level of risk inherent in projects under consideration as well as the capability of the organization’s systems and people to adequately deal with them. Provide assistance to project staff to assess the risks associated with an acquired project, and provide input during preconstruction activities related to identification of risk and the best ways to manage and mitigate their potential impact.

These factors will play a key role in the planning of the project by providing input to project staff regarding the inherent risks associated with the selection of means and methods. Assist in various planning functions, such as pre-project and project construction activities, phase planning, trade and task planning. Participate in the selection of the appropriate means and methods that will best deal with specific inherent risks. Provide input on assignment of potential staff regarding their capabilities in dealing with specific risks.

Input on risks associated with the subcontractor selection process should also be provided. Assist in the evaluation of risk management capabilities of critical path subcontractor field personnel and management. Participate in owner and/or subcontractor meetings where risk management issues require input. Conduct field inspections to assess state of risk management and report to senior management on outcomes and status.


This approach will create the best and most efficient use of the organization’s safety function. However, it might require a more knowledgeable and versatile person to effectively carry out the broader responsibilities effectively.

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