Thought Leadership

Good managers eat up safety data

December 18, 2012

dataLately, I've been doing a fair amount of management training in the past few months.

What I often see is safety folks, both full-time and part-time, who are struggling to do the compliance thing and a management team that is perfectly happy to let them struggle. Essentially nothing has changed in the 44 years I've been doing occupational safety.

The problem is most basic---no one wants to see people hurt but neither do they see safety as a core element of their company culture. Far too many senior managers simply do not understand how organizations work. And they are also blind to what goes on around them unless it fits their model of what's important.

Take housekeeping, for example. It's the first thing OSHA Compliance Officers consider when they walk in the door. For managers...and most others in the's wallpaper. They don't see it any more. What stronger message can you give to employees about what is or is not important. "Here, folks, walk on marbles all day but don't fall, it will be your fault!"

What safety pros could do (and some actually do) is what I do. I spend a lot of time searching the web for research on safety and culture. Thank you ISHN! There are many schools offering advanced degrees in safety management and all those folks must do research work. I do a lot of my own research, as you know. Good managers eat up good data. Most don't care about someone's opinion that runs counter to what they believe, but if you can hit them with hard facts that grab their attention, they will come around.

As for data, I always open my programs with a look at the 1979 NIOSH study by Professor Smith that showed traditional safety efforts make little difference beyond compliance and it's the cultural factors that really drive improved performance. That was landmark work and still has amazing relevance.

Now to measures. I always tell my clients to ignore incident rates. For nearly all of them (1,000 or fewer employees), the rates have almost no statistical significance (unless they are injuring 50% of their employees each year). I push leading indicators wherever I can. Near miss reports (more is better), inspection findings over time (fewer hazards identified, no repeat hazards), perception surveys (increasing positive scores over time), root cause analysis (my clients love TOR and accumulate findings over the year to use in strategic planning), percent of safety training given by supervisors (higher is better), percent of tasks covered by a JSA (100% is the objective). Basically, every activity that is positive and motivating can and should be scored.

Typically, I can get four hours with the management team and a good two of those four hours are discussing research and collecting data from the team for their own research report. Then I teach them two or three key assessment and analysis tools. If I spend 15 minutes on compliance issues, that's a lot.

Not all of them get it, but most do. Most often, it's a one-time shot, but when I do get back in for some follow-up, I see change taking place. Some of these companies are now VPP sites. Most are small (under 100 employees) to mid-sized (500 plus or minus). What they have in common is the flexibility to change and a flat enough hierarchy to trade ideas and reach into the ranks for help.

Bottom line: Companies run on data. If you don't collect great safety data and use it to manage the operation, you'll be checking safety glasses and fire extinguisher tags for the rest of your career.



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