March 03, 2008
10 Steps to Leading Measures of Workplace Safety

Is your safety program proactive to create safety performance excellence, or is it reactive to simply hold the line on injuries and illnesses? Safety professionals who are trying to achieve excellence through leading measures of performance can take the next step to develop and apply such measures in a systematic way.

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Indiana University's Earl Blair and Barry Spurlock from the Midwestern Insurance Alliance talked about 10 steps for developing and applying leading safety measures in the workplace, how to measure safety performance, and how to sell the leading measures to management.

They spoke at a conference of more than 600 safety professionals from Indiana and several surrounding states. The conference was presented by the Indiana chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the National Environmental, Health and Safety Training Association (NESHTA), Indiana INSafe, and the American Industrial Health Association.

Leading and Trailing Indicators of Performance

Spurlock said that "leading" safety measures are indicators of where the organization is headed; they are measures of future performance. He contrasted this with "trailing" indicators, which are indicators of past performance and they don't accurately indicate present and future safety conditions. For example, he recounted a visit to a facility with zero lost-workday injuries for the year and watched a man driving a forklift with another person standing on the forks while the forks were raised and the forklift turned a corner. The lost-workday report for that facility was more an indicator of luck (so far!) and not of overall safety performance.

Leading safety measures are focused on improving safety performance. Trailing indicators indicate progress toward compliance with safety rules. Both are essential for workplace safety. A safety program striving for excellent performance will use a mix of leading and trailing indicators.

Spurlock gave examples of leading and trailing measures and the safety management attitude that correlates with the measure:

Leading/Proactive Measures Trailing/Reactive Measures
Analysis of the safety management system Analysis of injury statistics
Root cause accident investigation Injury investigation
Focus on overall system improvement Focus on absence of injuries
Training = safety performance improvement Training = compliance with rules
Worker recognized for safety performance Worker reprimanded for accident

The Safety Climate Survey is an example of a leading safety measure. Worker perception surveys identify trends in employee attitudes about safety and are not directly linked to accident investigations, injury reports, or regulatory compliance.

0 Steps to Safety Performance Excellence

Blair and Spurlock outlined a 10-step process for establishing leading safety measures. They reminded the audience that a good mix of leading and trailing measures is needed to have a good safety program.

Step 1--Prioritize what is measured.

  • Measure trends in injuries and accidents, including where and when in a facility they occurred. This includes trailing indicators (injury and illness reports).
  • Look at "critical initiatives" such as unusual or severe events. They are can represent the tip of the iceberg that flag underlying safety system failures.

Step 2--Determine the hierarchal level of the organization to measure.

Spurlock recognized the contribution of the late Dan Petersen for this Step. Some measures look at upper or senior management performance, others look at the plant manager level, and others measure supervisor level performance, while others measure worker performance. Upper and senior management are more focused on results-oriented trailing indicators, while workers are focused on activity-oriented leading indicators.

In some cases, workers are more sensitive to the integrity of data than management. For example, workers can see what is really going on behind the data in the injury and illness reports where management cannot. The workers involved in the forklift incident mentioned earlier know more about safety performance at the facility than managers looking at the injury reports.

Step 3--Verify controls and identify obstacles to improvement.

Safety managers are wasting their time with safety if they skimp on this Step, they said.

  • Ensure the value of existing hazard controls. Don't just add a minimal control because the regulations may require it. Measure its value to keeping workers safe and if it is improving safety performance.
  • Implement appropriate controls
  • Identify safety system and cultural blocks. For example, observe whether workers are actually using goggles for eye protection instead of reliance on injury reports to determine if the measure is effective, and ask workers why they are not wearing them.

Spurlock stressed the value of control charts. Control charts highlight workplace incidents that occur more often than would be expected randomly or by chance. Control charts use safety statistics to help identify problem areas.

Step 4--Develop a simple list of measures for each activity.

Generally, 3 to 5 measures is a good number with which to start. Keep things simple. For example, measures of safety meeting effectiveness would be:

  • How often they start on time
  • Percentage of attendees that actually attend that are required to attend
  • Observations of attentiveness (people talking, looking elsewhere, sleeping, etc.)
  • Number of times same topic repeated

Step 5--Identify the means of employee engagement.

Measure a mix of leading and trailing indicators. Spurlock used the example of the Coors brewing facility in Golden, CO. They measure:

  • Attendance and engagement of employees in individual activities (safety meeting attendance, participation in safety events and fairs, etc)
  • Team activities
  • Compliance activities
  • Trailing indicators (injury and illness reports, lost-workday rate)

Step 6--Develop safety measurement methods and tools.

This step includes development of checklists, observation methods, incident investigations, surveys, scorecards, inspection schedules and methods, and audits.

For example, develop a template for conducting incident investigations, test it and refine it yourself or with someone with investigation experience. Then measure how supervisors or workers conduct investigations against the original template. Measure percent of investigations completed on time, completeness, and how well investigations identify the root cause of an incident, and how effectively the recommended control measures reduce the hazard.

Step 7--Develop delivery strategies for measuring performance.

  • Frequency of measures
  • Identify who is carrying out each measure

Step 8--Set performance goals.

Determine if the measures are specific to the conditions at the workplace, if they are measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.

Step 9--Monitor the progress of safety measures.

  • Look for correlations between the leading measures and lagging measures. For example, look at how training measures correlate with injury statistics.
  • Determine whether employees are engaged or participating in safety measures.

Step 10--Adjust and modify safety measures over time.

Improve measurement systems by modifying, adding, or deleting relevant measures over time.

Selling Leading Measures to Management

Spurlock and Blair outlined 7 tactics for selling management on adopting leading measures to safety performance.

  1. Emphasize legal responsibilities, company image, and ethical reasons for achieving safety excellence.
  2. Discuss the consequences of a recent accident or incident at another company in the same industry.
  3. Discuss the costs of managing safety the way it is currently handled, including workers' compensation costs and indirect impacts of incidents on the company (i.e., employee morale, lost productivity, etc.).
  4. Develop a sense of urgency; use facts and avoid undocumented projections.
  5. Demonstrate alignment of the safety measures with other business measurements of company health.
  6. Demonstrate a correlation wherever possible between safety measures and other company objectives, such as quality, productivity, and profitability.
  7. Align safety measures with industry consensus standards and existing management standards of the company.
Key Things to Keep in Mind

Blair summarized the key things to keep in mind when developing and implementing leading indicators:

  1. Have a mix of leading and trailing measures of performance.
  2. Keep the measures simple and to a small number for each activity.
  3. Customize them to site-specific conditions; don't just accept canned safety measuring templates as is from vendors
  4. Keep the tools for measuring the performance of safety initiatives as simple as possible.
  5. Accept some variation in statistics; watch for trends.
  6. Be dynamic with measures; be open to changing, adding, or deleting them according to relevancy to your workplace
  7. "Soft measures," such as measures of safety culture (for example, employee surveys) can have a big impact on safety performance.
  8. Engage employees in every step of the process.

For more information about this process, contact Professor Earl Blair at blair@indiana.edu .


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