Safety stats and budgets follow emotion

Employers spend much effort on measuring workplace health and safety performance, and adjusting H&S budgets, based on emotion and misleading lagging statistics.

Fatalities and lost time injury (LTI) numbers are too small to reveal trends, writes David G Broadbent on TransformationalSafety.com.

A company had three fatalities and 22 lost time injuries (LTIs) in 2008, then in 2009 they had six fatalaties and nine LTIs. What could we say about their safety performance in 2009? They had a ‘doubling’, or ‘100% increase’ in fatalaties, but they have 150 000 employees around the world, so there is absolutely no statistical difference between three and six fatalities.

If they had responded to these numbers by throwing buckets of money at the problems perceived to have caused the ‘increase’ in fatalities”, they would likely be wasting that money.

Their LTI numbers also fall below statistical significance, but most employers run their health and safety programmes based on emotion.

People base future expectations on past performance and incidents, yet lagging indicators are not reliable predictors. In everyday life, we sensibly look at the sky and weather reports to predict rain, but in health and safety we tend to look at weather statistics for last week or last year.

Stats are reductionist

Leading and lagging indicators could be seen as part of a continuum of indicators. Some organisations get themselves bent out of shape in lavishing their resources in response to lagging indicators. Nearly everyone fails to recognise that past experience is only reductionist, or exclusionary metrics. We gauge success by how close these little numbers could get to the mythical zero.

I have worked with some good business leaders who leave emotion at the door when making business decisions. I personally struggle with this hard nosed approach, but it seems to be an unofficial standard in good business.

Safety should be managed on evidence, and safety managers should distinguish between phantom numbers and evidence, but this is the exception, rather than the rule.

Most big global players do not get this right. I have seen some world famous companies spending many millions on approaches that just do not work. I have also seen some ‘snake oil’ safety sales people, selling miracle products, again based on emotional appeals and slogans.

We should ignore statistically insignificant numbers. It does not matter how often you are ‘zipped, zapped, or zopped’, if the fundamentals are not right, you are in for a very bumpy business ride.

Stats are expensive

Workplace health and safety errors, and safety programmes, are both expensive. We could get it wrong twice, suffering loss by exposing people to harm, and by spending on ineffective safety interventions.

I hear site safety professionals complaining of the amount of time they spend maintaining a safety system by number crunching at a PC, rather than supporting and championing safety behaviour in business.

Diagnosis is not emotional

When I consult a doctor, I do not want diagnosis based on emotion. Imagine a doctor diagnosing on the basis of my popularity, or not wanting to hurt my feelings, or wanting to inspire me.

If a doctor diagnoses silicosis, there would be zero value in revisiting the time you spent working in dust. Your past could not help you. You would have to focus on the present and the near future.

H&S leading indicators

Safety science tells us that lagging indicators do not predict incidents or accidents. Nearly all peer reviewed scientific literature tells us that leading indicators offer some assistance in diagnosing organisational health and safety.

Leading indicators include Safety Engagement, a metric developed by TranformationalSafety.com, and Safety Culture. These elments ahver to be assessed, analysed, and developed into a proactive culture.

Many employers lack the organisational maturity requried to confront their safety culture directly, so we need to explore less confronting means of exploring leading indicators. We have to start with well known lagging indicators, and increasingly woro to leading indicators.

Consider measuring these leading indicators:

% of jobs for which risk assessments are carried out

% reduction in exposure hours for hazardous activities

% of work site inspections carried out against planned requirement

% of jobs with hazard assessments

% of toolbox talks with a health element

% of work permits reviewed and controls found to meet health requirements

% of planned training courses completed

Leading indicators are expansionist, inclusionary metrics. Now we measure our health and safety effort, in positive numbers, not our losses in negative numbers. We should measure safe behaviour and culture, not play policeman and measure transgressions.

Find your H&S leading indicators

LTI frequency rate is almost universally used, and remains universally flawed, yet there are a wide range of leading safety indicators. Deciding which leading indicators add most value to your business is not simple.

Integration of leading safety indicators into business, depends on factors like underlying safety culture. As orgnisations mature, so do their ability to accomodate more discerning leading safety indicators.

Health and safety consultants should assist organisations to assess their safety maturity, and to inclued leading safety performance indicators.

* David G Broadbent is the founder of TransformationalSafety.com and contributor to the Austalasian Journal of Mining. He had recovered from a near fatal cycling accident in 2008.

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