Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: 8 principles for smarter metrics

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.

The era of Big Data has revived hopes that we will at last find the “holy grail” of safety – the lone indicator that unlocks safety performance. Unfortunately, this goal fundamentally misunderstands the dynamic nature of leading measures. Leading (versus lagging) indictors are forward-looking. They seek to predict what will happen and are therefore subject to variation, from the impact of behavior to changes to the safety environment. Rather than try to condense safety metrics, leaders can broaden their view of performance and profoundly change the discussion by becoming fluent in the principles that define great metric selection and use.

The meaning of measures

By definition, metrics are simply any set of observations that quantitatively reduce uncertainty. The measures we choose communicate what we value as organizations and how we define success. That a topic is represented on a dashboard conveys its value, but, just as importantly, how something is measured communicates volumes. For example, one company highlighted every lost-time incident – a reasonable but flawed approach because it gave every incident equal attention, even the one in which a person threw out their back while reaching for a pen. Alternatively, near misses, even those with the potential to be fatalities, were not similarly emphasized, creating a warped perception of the organization’s value for safety.

The Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council stresses that leading measures should be valid, actionable and easy to communicate. Valid means the indicator occurs before the incident and is statistically correlated with outcome measures. Actionable measures position the organization to intervene and actually reduce exposure. A measure that’s easy to communicate makes it understandable and applicable to those in harm’s way.

Here are eight principles for making your measures valid, actionable and easy to communicate:

Think broadly to ensure all elements of the organization’s safety footprint are considered. Is there exposure from driving (e.g., salespeople)? Does the organization have process safety exposure? Look at the operation holistically.

Emphasize exposure. Safety is defined as “reducing exposure for self and others.” Metrics that support the identification and mitigation of exposure are the most impactful.

Establish logical measures. Leading measures don’t need to be “one size fits all” but must be reasonable, with a sound basis in logic or fact. Different leading measures may be employed at site, division or corporate levels, but should support each other.

Ignite engagement. Employee participation is the cornerstone of safety, and metrics should support engagement. Worker involvement ensures measures have validity on the shop floor and helps leaders anticipate the behavioral impact measures will have before they’re implemented.

Plan for change. Leading metrics change over time. Review the existing metrics annually to ensure they’re still valid and not driving unintended consequences. Make sure a team, process and plan is in place to evaluate measures regularly. Involve employees and supervisors in the process to effectively assess impact and validate measures.

Resist implementing only lagging measures just because the infrastructure is in place to gather data. Organizations often gravitate toward outcome measures because they’re easier to track and more available. Avoid using financial metrics in the safety dashboard, as this communicates that the organization views safety as a cost-saving strategy.

Consider implementation and value in selection criteria. New metrics that require significant new work or effort from the field may be difficult to implement immediately, and they run the risk of being poorly implemented. Considering ease of implementation as part of the change management plan can help build momentum for taking a more strategic view of safety measures.

Take the long view. Even though the present system may not support a particular metric, consider how to phase it in over time. Incorporate future measures into annual assessments of metrics and behaviors. What are the steps that will lead to using a metric in a few years? What infrastructure will be needed to phase the metric in?


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

Michael Mangan, Ph.D., is vice president of research and development for DEKRA Insight. His work helps organizations understand performance and design interventions for improvement.


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