The theories and processes behind the management of organizations have remained largely unchanged over the last decade. What has changed, however, is the ability of firms to identify and extract data that demonstrates the “health” of various processes in the organization. There is an alphabet soup of metrics in most organizations that measure nearly every process in the value chain from the C Suite to outsourced supporting roles. “Management by data” is the norm.
Health and safety leaders are no exception. Thanks (or no thanks) to regulation, procurement systems, and reporting requirements, the focus remains squarely on the usual suspects: occupational injury/illness related metrics such as TRIR, DART, and the like. In some organizations, safety leaders also produce metrics for “compliance” and safety training.
There is a well-known dictum in engineering, business, and quality circles:
”What gets measured, gets done.”
There’s several variants to this, some ending with “gets managed,” or “gets improved.” The goal here is not to get hung up on the quote, but to understand its implications. Counting injuries in an organization is no different than counting errors. It shows the symptoms of the problem, but does little to address the underlying causes, and is a terrible metric to gauge improvement.
It seems counterintuitive that we wouldn’t want to measure the progress of safety in our respective organizations by an injury metric. After all, isn’t safety the absence of injuries? In a word…no. Safety is represented by the organization’s effort with respect to hazard abatement and risk reduction across the value chain. The goal is treating the cause, not just the symptoms.
Some organizations choose just to focus on the injury metrics. Focusing the majority of the organizational effort on the appearance of symptoms produces results or varying levels of effectiveness, often at expense of other aspects. Suppressing the appearance of systemic or safety culture issues by “managing” the illness/injury statistics is akin to treating the pain and fever of strep throat and ignoring treatment of the cause (infection) and corrective action (antibiotics). Imagine going to a physician for this, having him not treat the cause, but just telling you to take some acetaminophen or ibuprofen and wait it out. Some organizations act like this when it comes to safety, and then still “blame” the “patient” for getting sick in the first place.
Incident rates are convenient metrics for safety. Annually, organizations in the U.S. with greater than 10 employees have to count occupational illnesses/injuries along with dispositions and post those numbers. Companies with the “compliance mentality” often never get any further than this step.
As you can imagine, in organizations where this occurs there’s a lot of finger-pointing that goes on. In many cases this transcends the “blame the worker” mentality, which has plagued the safety profession going back to the Industrial Revolution. It is easy for firms to innocently misalign organizational incentives to “manage” these incident rates instead of managing risk.
If we’re going to be effective as safety leaders, the conversation about the effectiveness of organizational safety efforts needs to change. Efforts and reporting metrics need to be discussed in terms of risk reduction, not TRIR. “Human error” has to be viewed in the context of the organizational safety management system.
As professionals, we can no longer afford to see safety as the absence of incidents, illnesses, or injuries. Latent causes of failure exist in nearly every system, and as humans we seem to be particularly adept at bringing those latencies to the surface.
As safety leaders, dealing with safety compliance can at times be a daunting task; hiring a third party safety company can assist with this. For information on finding a third party safety company download our free outsourcing guide.