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Safety: Are You Good or Just Lucky?

When safety systems are designed and managed to look at multiple areas of risk and analyze them in a holistic context, they provide a more useful way to measure safety than simply counting bodies and broken bones.

Posted: April 23, 2014


As the economy recovers and business appears headed in the right direction, the last thing any organization needs is a catastrophic injury to upset its proverbial apple cart. A severe enough injury, after all, is far more than a disruption of business . . . the cost and public relations fallout alone can derail a fragile recovery.

Many business leaders have no reason to believe that they are at risk of such a disaster. Then again, other executives have no reason to believe that they aren’t at risk for ruinous worker injury or, worse still, a fatality. This is not entirely their fault.

Workplace safety is typically determined by “counting bodies” because no government requirement exists for reporting actual worker safety. The law only requires reports on people that get hurt, which ultimately places executives in the unenviable position of managing an unknown risk, forced to guess whether their safety performance is the result of any strategic effort or simply blind, stupid luck.

The inability to directly connect an initiative to a result makes it difficult to know whether money is being wasted on efforts that have no influence on safety results. For example, consider the thousands of dollars spent on behavioral safety observations, where one worker is paid to watch another one work and then offer tips on how to work more safely.

While this practice may work in some settings (I doubt it does in any lasting way) and improve the safety of certain tasks, it most certainly will not work universally because it is impossible to tell whether the amount being saved is commensurate with the cost of the practice itself.

In basic terms, managers are being asked to support often costly efforts without any expectation of the basic justifications typically expected for other expenditures. Adding enough practices with unquantifiable costs and benefits makes an organization rife with superstitions, unable to tell which add value and which are waste.

The safety function has traditionally been given a pass when it came to justifying their work in hard dollars. Where other operations were expected to construct a business case and identify the expected ROI, safety wrapped itself inside the flag of “it’s the right thing to do.”

Not buying into this proverbial “pig in a poke” was once synonymous with not caring about safety, but that no longer applies today. When every dollar counts, it’s time to count every dollar – including holding safety professionals to the same standard as other business functions. Simply demanding change is not likely to be successful. Investment in business training for safety professionals is essential to successfully raising their skill level.

Every so often a new fad ushers in a series of safety metrics that could potentially mislead executives into thinking their operation is performing better or worse than it is. In fact, many of the metrics currently used to gauge safety as part of a balanced scorecard are wholly inadequate for making informed decisions about risk. Instead of the traditional Incident Rates (IR), Days Away or Restricted Time (DART), managers should demand true indicators of risk.

It’s important to shift the focus away from the body counts and look for ways to better assess risk factors. By focusing on indications of risk, value-drive responses to risk can be created. There are no such thing as universal risk factors for worker safety, however, here are six risk factors that apply more often than they don’t:

Worker stress has a profound impact, not only on human error, but on risk taking and worker health as well. Highly stressed workers are distracted, which leads to mistakes, which lead to injuries. Some measures that directly correlate to worker stress are:

Worker absenteeism. Absenteeism rates indicate both worker stress and worker competence. Stressed workers tend to miss more work, meaning their job is done by someone less skilled and more likely to deviate from standard. The worker stuck doing the job is at greater risk of injury than the one whose muscle memory completes many of the tasks by rote. This is not universally the case, but it is true often enough to correlate and predict.

Number of calls to employee assistance programs. Worker distraction tends to relate to distractions borne in the workplace. Workers who are worried about financial problems, divorce, or other “off-hours” issues face the same dangers as those distracted by work issues. The number of calls to EAP lines provides a good idea of how much distraction is in the workplace. This correlates to human error, behavioral drift, lapses in judgment and, ultimately, workplace injuries.

Worker turnover. Employee turnover creates risk in much the same way absenteeism does, introducing greater variation into work processes which, in turn, increases the risk of injuries. The greater the employee turnover rate, the higher the risk of injuries as new, less competent and skilled workers replace higher performing, more experienced workers.

Engagement survey scores. Engaged workers tend to do things that are the right thing to do. The lower the level of employee engagement, the higher the risk of worker injuries. We seldom have a perfect correlation (where factor A is true and factor B is also true), and even in those rare conditions where perfect correlation exists, it does not mean a cause-and-effect relationship exists between two factors. When looking at the measurement’s predictive value there is always a margin for error, statistical anomalies and statistical outliers. If a perfect method of predicting injuries existed, we would be using it.

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