Safety Leadership: Measuring Occupational Health and Safety Success

(Note: This is a follow-up to my last blog, which was about the development of safety and health goals and objectives. This article talks about the measurement of occupational health and safety success, which is affected by the goals and objectives that have been established. The information below is similar to what I had first shared with a subgroup of the ANSI/ASSP Z10 [Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems] committee.)

All good business organizations measure performance against established metrics. Measurement areas typically include operational, financial and quality related metrics, but unfortunately, not always safety related metrics. Except perhaps for numbers and rates of injury cases.

Should they not also be measuring safety and health related performance, beyond injury events?

Organizations with Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems (OHSMSs) – regardless of type- will no doubt want to describe the relative success of the “Safety” program as well as the company’s performance against requirements of their OHSMS – which after all, is intended to help provide that success!

Organizations should establish routine means for both formal and informal review and evaluation, along with the corresponding sharing of results. Formal review can be provided through scheduled Management Review meetings, safety committee meetings, organizational 1:1 meetings, internal and external audits, and other means. Informal review can be accomplished through plant walks, safety talk “coaching sessions,” lunchroom conversations, etc. But, “WHAT” should Leaders look for and evaluate? What measures are important?

One emphatic point to make, is that one should not measure the success or failure of an OHS program, by just (and only) evaluating injury and illness cases or rates. Those measures are “lagging” indicators and their exclusive use would be a bit like driving a vehicle by looking solely through the rear-view mirror. Injury data can be useful, but not if they are the exclusive factors evaluated. Rates and losses are measures of the consequences of safety performance and are not “the” safety performance.

Rather, organizations should measure the activities and factors likely to result in reduced injuries and whether those activities and factors are successful in bringing risk to acceptable levels. It’s not a binary thing, pass/fail. It might be a bit more like taking multiple measurements across various parts of an organization. These sorts of measures may be referred to as “leading” indicators. Now, not to confuse things – I should point out that some people may want to make the case that there is no such thing as a “leading indicator.” This is in part because there are many things that contribute toward injury events (indeed, there “are” other ways of thinking about safety). But, I think the concept of lagging vs. leading indicators can be a useful way of distinguishing measures that are used after something has happened as opposed to the kinds of things that can be variables that can ultimately impact injury potential.

The ANSI/ASSP Z10 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems standard incorporates the measurement of several factors that can impact an OHS Management System, to include measurement against the organization’s Goals and Objectives and other factors (to include for audit results and improvements). This is done within the “Plan Do Check Act” framework. The organization is to determine the timeframe for evaluation based upon what is needed to meet safety objectives. OSHA publication 3885, “Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs,” recommends initial and then periodic checks of the safety program, within a similar format, centered around an overall evaluation to identify shortcomings and opportunities. Lagging indicators to include injury experience are one element of measurement, but the focus is on aspects of the program that have been implemented to prevent injuries or illnesses before they occur. Program evaluation in that context also includes providing ways for employees to participate in evaluation and improvement.

Is your safety system effective in reducing risk factors? Just because your organization may not have experienced catastrophic failures, does not mean that significant risk does not exist. The lack of incidents does not mean there is “safety” or that the probability of injury is not “high.”

Do not expect overnight results, and do not confuse unfocused or uncoordinated “activity” with “results.” It can be easy to check a box but forget the true goals of particular activities. That is part of why the management review of OHS progress, and participation by a group of employees, is important.

When Measuring OHS Success, Consider the Following:

  • Is Safety Leadership expected and measured in some way? Do supervisors and managers know what that term means and how they can lead in safety? Is the organization taking actions and measuring progress in areas surrounding safety leadership?
  • Does the organization clearly understand its applicable requirements and corresponding goals?
  • Remember that the individual system components operate differently within the system than they would by themselves. Evaluate the whole, which reflects interaction of the parts.
  • Are all desired/adapted program aspects in place?
    • Where they exist, are they effective? Have shortcomings been identified and made part of the goal-setting process?
  • Are there processes to collect, analyze and review critical performance metrics?
    • Where these processes exist, are they effective? Have shortcomings been identified and made part of the goal-setting process? Is there evidence of efforts to correct and improve?
  • Are there system functions that are missing or previously thought to not be necessary, which should be considered in the goal setting process?
  • Are audits and assessments conducted as necessary?
    • What are the results of these audits and assessments? Is improvement evident?
  • Does the organization track leading indicators? There are multiple publications that review possible leading indicators that can be used, to include the OSHA Pub 3885.
  • Are quantitative and semi-quantitative assessments conducted, against clear goals and objectives, and on-schedule?
    • Is there evidence of consistent management, steady progress and accomplishment of goals?
  • Is improvement of both technical and the social aspects of safety systems evaluated?
  • Are there mechanisms for providing positive recognition for meeting or exceeding goals aimed at preventing injury or illness?
  • Do organizational leaders demonstrate active participation in safety programs; if so, is this measured where possible?
  • Are there channels for open communication and learning, as well for the sharing of the results of OHS evaluations and measurements?
  • Are there opportunities to reward workers who identify issues, concerns, improvement opportunities?

Assessments should be dynamic and periodic. The results of assessments should be shared transparently with the broader team. Assessments directly tied to compliance with your safety management system can be documented in a scorecard model.

Remember to focus on achievements – give persons an opportunity to see achievement of proactive and leading goals, rather than focusing on the “avoidance” of “bad” things happening. When the company has a system in place to learn from both successes and failures and to strive for ongoing improvement in a balanced manner, it will have achieved a significant and crucial element of an effective OHSMS.

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