What is “Safety Performance”?
I’m a big believer in the power of questions. I am always amazed by how asking the right question at the right moment, can cause people to open up, and in turn, unlock hidden insights that allow you to dive deeper at the heart of an issue. Timed perfectly, the right question can begin a dialogue that allows discovery of what leaders are challenged with and how I can help them. Over the years, one of the questions I find most useful in challenging leaders most and is most revealing about how the organization operates is:
“Without using accident-based metrics, how would you measure safety?
This is a powerful question that strikes at the heart of how an organization thinks about safety. If an organization measures performance strictly through accident-based metrics (aka lagging indicators) then that tells me more work is needed to help leaders understand and appreciate leading indicators. What companies come to realize through answering this question is that accident-based metrics only provide the end-result of a company’s efforts and provide little insight into specifically how the results were obtained, or how well your current processes are performing to prevent the next accident!
Even if we accept the premise that lagging indicators are a reliable indicator of safety performance, what happens if an organization is successful in driving the number of injuries to zero? What information do organization’s have available to indicate how well an organization is performing, or how “close to the edge” an organization is from experiencing their next accident? Without information to gauge performance, management is unable to intervene or make corrections that could improve performance and prevent injury. Organizations would never have the information available to tell them how close they are from having a serious injury, until they have it.
A reliance on lagging indicators reveals a lack of strategy and how the organization needs a more intentional and proactive approach to improve safety. Organizations should never abandon their “Zero Injury” mindset, but having a “Zero Injury” mindset is not a sustainable safety improvement strategy. Asking workers to have zero accidents doesn’t tell them how to have zero accidents. Telling employees what not to do (make mistakes/have injuries), is not the same as providing the necessary leadership, support and direction to reduce risk and prevent accidents/injuries.
What Safety Performance Measures Can Tell Us
On the flip side, if an organization measures performance through a combination of leading and lagging indicators, that tells me that perhaps there is an opportunity to review what is being measured, what that data tells us, and ultimately are there things we should be measuring but aren’t. Are metrics focused only on what employees do? What about what managers do? What results are managers accountable for?
As early as 1996, influential safety pioneer Dan Petersen wrote how measuring performance through accident based metrics was a “waste of time” and “meaninglessness.” Petersen went on to say that organizations should use “anything but accident based metrics” to measure the performance of management, and instead focus on the active participation in activities designed to improve safety performance.
Without available information of how well the organization is performing now, organizations cannot proactively respond to changes in the work environment that may increase risk in some significant way, and can only respond to events as they occur. As a result, accident-based metrics tend to drive reactive, rather than proactive safety improvement efforts. Managers will spend their time “putting out fires” as opposed to tackling safety issues within an organization with an applied, focused, and coherent strategy.
Admittedly measuring “safety” is difficult. One cannot count what doesn’t happen. With safety, one cannot count the infinite amount of accidents that could have occurred but didn’t. What we can measure are the things we do on a daily, weekly, annual basis to support workers to be more successful, and to reduce the level of risk associated with our operations so that people are less likely to get injured?
As Sidney Dekker stated in his Field Guide to Understanding Human Error: “a system isn’t automatically safe; people have to create safety through practice at all levels of the organization” (Dekker, 2014, p. 4-6). Asking people to “be safe” is insufficient. Organization’s on a mission to improve safety in a sustainable manner should seek alternatives to accident-based metrics to measure safety performance. Organizations need more reliable information and insight to measure and gauge safety performance than accident-based metrics can provide. To provide sustainable safety improvement, organizations need to implement structures and systems that support critical thinking regarding how risk is managed, facilitate communication across the organization, and to instill a continuous improvement mindset.
WHAT METRICS IS YOUR COMPANY USING TO MEASURE SAFETY?
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