Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Safety in the era of big data: Principles for getting it right

Safety Leadership column

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA Insight share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

Safety data provides knowledge, knowledge gives people the ability to make sound decisions, and sound decisions lead to a much higher probability of success. Nothing promises leaders knowledge like big data. But that promise can be unfulfilled when there is a focus on sheer volume, quantity over quality, when mechanisms are not in place to ensure the data is valid and of high quality, or when we haven’t given significant thought about what we are trying to accomplish by collecting the data. Finally, if we have the right data in the right quantity, are we using the appropriate analytical tools to more fully understand and use the knowledge gained? To find clarity, it’s helpful to begin with the end in mind: What are the basic questions we want our data to answer? Starting with a question opens the door to answers – making data a practical tool, not just a promising one.

Here are three principles to guide leaders in navigating safety data:

Data should support good decision-making. It’s a common mistake to simply accept whatever data we can get and do our best to understand and use it. Good data comes down to answering three questions: Are we getting better? What top exposures are likely to cause serious injuries or catastrophic incidents? What are the top contributing factors to our incidents and exposures? It’s important to remember that there are various audiences for safety data. Excellent data in the hands of an effective worker safety team can lead to amazing results. So leaders need to not only consider what data they need to lead safety, but what data others need to be successful in fulfilling their roles.

Data must provide actionable insight. Organizations tend to collect a lot of safety data but not always in ways that illuminate what’s happening relative to exposure. It’s helpful to link incident data to other data sources that are predictive of outcomes. Consider the ways linking one dataset to another can provide valuable insight. Consecutive hours or days worked may play a role in incidents. By linking the two, you can determine if a correlation exists. Maintenance and audit history may relate to outcomes such as spills and releases. Linking those data sets helps discover the role maintenance plays in reducing releases. Productivity and on-time performance also may show a correlation, and so on. We have to move beyond the traditional analysis of our incident data, observation data, audit data, etc. While this information is important, deep knowledge is only possible when we start testing for non-traditional relationships and causation.

Data has to be presented in meaningful terms. For leaders to make effective decisions, data needs to be simple, clear and unencumbered with extraneous information. For example, since incident rates vary from month to month, presenting incident data over a 12- to 24-month timeline will make the trends more visible. From an analytical perspective, using incident frequencies (which consider population size differences) are good for understanding differences in performance while raw numbers of incidents are much better for general communication.

We are really at the cusp of leveraging big data in safety. It is an exciting time and it will challenge the way we think about data and the information we collect that will allow robust analysis. The good news is that you are not alone in this transformation. This journey starts when we keep the end in mind, asking the questions we want data to answer. This allows data to work for us, illuminating the path to true improvement.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Don Groover, CIH (ret), CSP, is a senior vice president with DEKRA Insight. Groover helps organizations create high-performing cultures and align systems with the organization’s value for safety. He is co-author of “The Manager’s Guide to Workplace Safety.”

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