Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Getting the measure of serious and fatal injury exposure in your organization

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2013, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to achieve world-class safety performance.

By Don Martin

Of all the things leaders worry about, by far the most troubling is that an employee might suffer a serious injury or fatality (SIF). Not only are SIF events devastating, they also are notoriously difficult to address – traditional safety metrics don’t detect exposure to them. This is why some leaders are championing the development of an SIF exposure rate. The goal is to bring visibility to SIF exposure and allow organizations to find and address their precursors.

An effective performance metric helps us track progress and make decisions about strategy and resource allocation. For example, the OSHA system for classifying and recording injuries has been an important driver of safety improvement. However, this system does not distinguish between injuries with potential for SIFs and those without. The number of SIFs are not a reliable measure either; they are simply too infrequent to provide statistical relevance.

Instead, we want to measure the rate of exposure to SIFs – both the exposures that resulted in an actual fatality or serious injury and those that have the reasonable potential to result in an SIF. Measuring the rate of potential SIFs expands the number of data points to a level where we can observe patterns and take the steps needed to save lives. Developing a measure of SIF potential consists of five steps:

  1. Educate your team (and yourself) on the importance of potential. SIFs tend to have different causes than lower-severity injuries and require different solutions to address them. Yet, many organizations classify events by outcome rather than potential – effectively ignoring critical contextual differences. This means a sprain caused by manual lifting (low SIF potential) is given the same resources and attention as a sprain caused by movement to avoid being struck by a moving forklift (high SIF potential).
  2. Determine what you mean by SIF and SIF exposure potential. While fatalities refer to a work-related fatal injury or illness, “serious injury” can be defined more or less broadly. Some organizations classify a serious injury simply as a life-threatening (requiring immediate attention) injury or illness. Others broaden that definition to include injuries that are life-altering (causing permanent change to normal life activity).
  3. Develop a reliable classification scheme to evaluate incidents for SIF potential. An injury case can be said to have SIF exposure potential when the incident results in an actual SIF or when the exposure could have reasonably and realistically resulted in a fatality or serious injury outcome if repeated. There are two general approaches to determining SIF potential: the judgment-based narrative review (using a case-by-case review to assess SIF potential) and the event-based decision tree (using a customized decision tree). Whichever method you use, the goal is to fuel a reliable metric for SIF exposures.
  4. Calculate the SIF exposure metric. The metric can be expressed a couple of ways. Research demonstrates that about 20 percent of reported cases have SIF exposure, so the SIF metric can be expressed as a percentage of reported cases. It also can be calculated as a rate based on reported OSHA recordable cases, using the same formula.
  5. Keep the SIF exposure rate in context. Finally, it is critical not to oversimplify the SIF exposure rate or reduce it to a number on a chart. The SIF exposure metric is different from all other safety statistics. The gravity of SIF events demands attention to the complex set of factors that drive them. This is why many of the leaders we know frame it as an “awareness” metric rather than a performance metric.

Making progress toward SIF reduction depends on visibility. Supplementing your reporting with an SIF exposure rate allows you to assess progress and detect increases in risk.

Ultimately, it helps change the question from “How could this happen?” to “How do we manage and control SIF precursors here?”

Don Martin is vice president and executive consultant with BST. Martin works with senior executives and executive management teams to develop and implement strategic solutions to improve safety operations and to eliminate fatalities.

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