W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer in the quality movement that occurred decades ago, succinctly described how a process works: inputs lead to outputs. In other words, companies are no better than how they perform a process, and they are fooling themselves if they believe the firm is doing well simply because of an absence of poor outputs.
Businesses now scrutinize the inputs of a process and adjust accordingly through data-driven decisions to achieve continual improvement. While this has worked wonders for quality, many safety departments have yet to get the memo. A company can only measure how well it’s doing by focusing on leading indicators (inputs that can be observed and adjusted prior to an incident), as opposed to relying on lagging indicators that may not reflect what truly is happening. Many companies routinely collect leading indicators in the form of worksite inspections, observations of conditions and behaviors, and the measurement of activities. The next step is to conduct trend analyses instead of simply filing this information in a drawer, never to be seen again.Technology can help track and analyze this data, especially if it involves multiple projects across a large geographical area. Besides identifying the top hazards and the severity of risk posed by those hazards, several strong correlating metrics, called “safety truths,” also can be used to drive continuous safety improvement.
The first safety truth relates to volume, with studies showing injuries decrease as observations increase. But keep in mind, companies can’t inspect process defects. With accident prevention as the goal, consider creating a health and safety plan that outlines what rules, policies, procedures and activities will be implemented. For example, before conducting hot work, a contractor must complete a hot work permit. The permit details what must be done before the hazardous activity begins, such as removing or covering flammable materials, setting a fire watch and obtaining fire extinguishing equipment.
Inspections simply show the gaps in what is expected and what actually occurs. How the data is acted on—from short-term fixes to long-term strategies—determines how much a process improves, which ultimately will reduce risks and prevent injuries.
The second safety truth involves the number and diversity of observers. Undoubtedly, more observers increases the chance of getting a more complete picture of risk. In addition, involving observers with different skill sets (i.e., the worker who performs the tasks daily versus the front-line supervisor with a wealth of experience) allows risk to be better identified and managed.
An observation is simply a snapshot in time. Depending on when employees observe something, their perception of risk can vary tremendously based on what they did or didn’t see. Often, companies with dozens of projects rely on one or only a few safety inspectors as the sole source of insight into risk, despite the fact that it could be weeks between each inspection. A recent study found that projects in which safety professionals were the only inspectors experienced the greatest number of incidents. The reason lies in just one word: ownership. If safety personnel perform the inspections, then managers and workers will view the safety department as owning the process, instead of safety being a group effort.
Too Many ‘All-Safe’ Inspections
The third safety truth involves the frequency of “100 percent” safe inspections. Research shows projects with a high frequency of all-safe inspections are generally at a very high risk for injuries.
The reasons observers may falsely indicate nothing is wrong vary from not knowing how to determine what is unsafe to fear of reprisal from management or fear that unsafe observations are perceived as poor job performance. If error, including human error, is viewed as a criminal act with penalty, no one would volunteer this information. Instead, companies should encourage a culture of discovery in which workers routinely are engaged and empowered to find and fix unsafe activities, as well as address the causal factors that allowed them to occur in the first place. This approach must be supported by leadership to remain effective and sustainable.
Too Many Unsafe Observations
The fourth safety truth relates to reporting a high number of unsafe observations. Inaction can be quite frustrating for all parties, especially the employees who routinely spot the same hazards that fail to be resolved properly.
Imagine if a worker observes a drywall contractor with terrible housekeeping, including scraps, screws and other debris strewn throughout the work area. Feedback is given to the foreman and eventually the mess is cleaned up. A day or two goes by and someone observes the same worker with poor housekeeping in another area of the project. The same feedback exchange occurs with minimal results. This can go on unless a strategic intervention occurs, which ensures accountability. Simply documenting the unsafe observation without addressing why it is happening won’t reduce injuries.
Safety is a process—not simply a collection of mismatched programs and policy statements—that should be managed similarly to every other business function. When this is done, the evidence gained from observations should serve to predict and prevent injuries.