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Do Incident Rates Determine the Value of Safety?

Nov 20, 2020

Safety professional man wearing a hard hat and high vis vest holding a tablet in front of a teal background Everyone has seen a sign on a job site that shows how many days have passed since the last reported safety incident. These signs are intended to be motivational and inspiring. When the number is high, workers are supposed to feel satisfied with a job well done. When the number is low, workers are supposed to feel an increased urgency to protect one another from harm.

If you’re like most professionals tasked with managing risk, you probably aren’t a fan of these signs and what they communicate about the value of safety. You might be asking: Why would we only communicate our failures and not our successes? Could this message pressure workers to keep injuries and illnesses to themselves?

The decades-old debate about the best way to track and measure the progress of occupational safety and health (OSH) programs has produced more questions than answers. However, certain norms and best practices — influenced in part by OSHA and the ANSI/ASSP Z16 standards committee — have emerged to help guide your reporting.  

Should You Use Leading or Lagging Indicators?

Reported incident rates are a common example of lagging safety indicators. These are metrics that reflect what happened in the past. They often bring attention to hazards or programmatic concerns. In contrast, leading indicators — such as the time it takes to respond to a safety hazard report — help you anticipate and address future risks. 

“A good safety and health program uses leading indicators to drive change and lagging indicators to measure effectiveness,” says Lisa Long, director of OSHA’s Office of Engineering Safety.

OSHA recommends using one or more of these three approaches for developing and using leading indicators:

  1. Repurpose data you already collect to achieve an OSH goal
  2. Collect new data to control a hazard you’ve identified
  3. Collect new data to improve an element of your OSH program

“There’s no one-size-fits-all way to use leading indicators,” Long continues. “For example, when you first start, you may want to make sure safety meetings are happening. When you’re further along and everyone’s attending the safety meetings, you may want to make sure they are effective.”

Why Is the ANSI/ASSP Z16 Standard Important?

ANSI/ASSP Z16 is a proposed standard that will help you go beyond reported incident rates and create relevant, persuasive OSH reports. C. Gary Lopez, M.S., CSP, ASSPF, member of the Z16 committee, expects that a full draft will be written within a year and will focus on leading and lagging indicators, as well as value-based metrics (usually expressed in dollars) and management engagement.

“To a large extent, metrics define our role because we manage what we measure,” he says. “Our committee wants to take metrics out of the parochial — or insular — view of the safety profession and bring them into the management ranks.”

Luckily, the Z16 committee isn’t starting from scratch. It seeks to breathe new life into an outdated version of the standard that was conceived nearly 100 years ago, but still includes valuable insights.

“ANSI Z16 was not used as much by the time OSHA was born (in 1971) simply because we switched to approaches from the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” says Lopez. “However, elements of the original Z16 standard are still present in our systems today. The formulas we still use to calculate lost time and incidents are based on this document from the 1920s.”

How Can Metrics Show Leaders the Value of Safety?

When you want to convince someone that what you have to offer is valuable, the first step is to identify their goals, the pain points that are blocking those goals and how you can help. That means you should be prepared to have a frank conversation with organizational leaders about their objectives and what they’d like to see from your OSH program. Chances are, according to Lopez, your time-strapped executives will be looking for simple numbers that convey a simple message: Is the program working or not?

“I once put an elaborate report together for a CEO, and he sent it back to me and said, ‘I thank you for your exhaustive work. Can you simplify this for me?’ Essentially what he was saying was, ‘If you can’t put this in a paragraph, it’s too much.’”

The need to shorten high-level safety reports may feel like a challenge, but Long believes it’s also an opportunity in disguise. It gives you the chance to clarify what really matters to your company’s leadership, make the business case for safety and better protect your team.

“When you work together to take deliberate and measured actions to prevent injuries, fatalities and illnesses,” she says, “you also demonstrate your commitment to maintaining a socially responsible workplace that values workers.” 

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