What Safety Metrics Really Make the Difference

Anyone in the safety industry knows that there is no shortage of metrics available. Every group of people seems to want to look at things based on a different set of metrics, all of them swearing that theirs is the best out there. This topic was discussed in an interesting post on the OSHA Discussion & Support / Occupational Safety / EH&S / HSE group on LinkedIn.

In the group, safety educator and consultant Natalia Olive, CSP, CSHM posted,

“What safety metrics you use? Are any of them in place “because we’ve always done it”? Do you feel these metrics drive the right behavior? If you had no restrictions, what would you measure for safety performance?”

This is a great question, especially the part asking whether any metrics are in place just because that is the way things have always been done. Many companies get into bad habits, and never break out of them because everyone just assumes there is a valid reason for them. In many cases, however, specific activities, safety related or otherwise, really don’t add any value to the company, so they should be looked at and discarded or improved if possible.

Let’s Look at Lean

Not surprisingly with this topic, the concept of Lean principles came up quite quickly. Alan Langstone said,

“There are many Lean principles that are applicable within safety. Why not look at things from a different view point? How about Six Sigma (could be wrong term) and use a metric that measures successful operations completed and any incidents as non-compliance to the system. The other great way would be to look at metrics that would get you out in front of incidents….”

Lean, Six Sigma, and other strategies aren’t necessarily designed specifically to focus on safety, but they can certainly help in this area. As most people in manufacturing (and many other) industries know, safety problems are a big source of waste. Applying Lean principles can really help to improve safety, and part of that would be to gather the appropriate data by using only helpful metrics.

It’s Just Numbers

Luis Gonzalez commented saying,

“I do believe that in many companies safety numbers are just that, numbers and do not drive any behavioral changes, furthermore we tend to put too much focus on lagging indicators and not enough attention on leading indicators and programs, safety is about culture, not numbers, however, since we have always done it that way, we tend to go with the flow and our employees are the ones who pay the price. In my humble opinion we should focus on leading indicators and cultural shift. Lagging indicators is like covering the well after the child drowns.”

Most people who work in safety know that Mr. Gonzalez’s comments are spot in regarding the numbers being just numbers. In far too many instances a company will set safety goals based on specific numbers, and then employees or department leads will simply work specifically to meet the numbers, rather than actually accomplish the safety improvements that they should represent. “Playing to the numbers” doesn’t keep a facility safe, but it does help to get passing evaluations on the metrics.

Leading Toward Safety

Kirk Flowers said,

“I believe we need to quit measuring safety and start leading people. When we establish a metric and have in mind a numerical goal the focus then seems to become the number, that is our goal. Safety of our personnel is then second. My experience is that well lead people will comply with the rules because they respect their leader…”

This is spot on for just about all cases. While there are times when there has to be some type of metric or number involved, that should never be the primary motivator of a safety manager. Keeping the employees and facility safe should be goal #1.

By leading other people within the facility toward that goal, and helping people to truly see the importance of safety, any numbers will end up falling into place.

Keeping the Discussion Going

Whether on LinkedIn, in person, or anywhere else, this is an important conversation to continue long into the future. While taking measurements and setting safety metrics can be a helpful tool, it isn’t the only one available. Making metrics work in service to safety is going to get results where demanding safety look like preconceived metrics will only lead to trouble.

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