Literature is replete with examples of Safety Management Systems (SMS) that have been put together and implemented in all types of businesses and industries. I venture to say that, besides a variety of creative acronyms and different strategical approaches of implementation, significant portions of most SMSs share the same basic core principles.

It is implicit that any SMS should deliver a number of goals: safety performance, instituting standards and practices, compliance with regulatory requirements, communications and dissemination of information, setting up responsibilities & rights, etc.

I also think that, pragmatically, the ultimate goal of any SMS should be to guide employees to an accident-free workplace. To be realistic, we can define “accident-free” as zero preventable accidents.

Assuming that the above considerations and the ultimate goal are fair and relevant, then how can we determine the efficiency of a particular SMS?


Key performance indicators

One possible answer could be to use key performance indicators (KPIs) that have been established, for instance, by regulatory entities — the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), the Department of Transportation and so forth.

Some of these KPIs collect past events, and as such are classified as lagging indicators; other KPIs, classified as leading indicators collect information that happened in the past but suggest important hints about possible future events that, by establishing and implementing preventive actions, could be completely avoided.

Lagging indicators, some examples:

• OSHA recordable injuries

• Vehicle crashes

• Release of hazardous chemicals to the environment

• Citations and fines for non-compliance


Leading indicators, some examples:

• Reporting behavior-based observations

• Reporting unsafe conditions

• Results (scores) of inspections & audits and time to close their respective corrective actions

• Hours of safety training / employee

• Execution of pre & post job safety meetings


Benefits of tracking

Reporting, recording, managing and tracking lagging and leading indicators versus time, could yield results similar to the following example graph:

The degree of efficiency (rate of improvement) of the SMS would be evidenced by the development of a succession of phases showing a continual improvement of the chosen indicators:

Phase 1 — Pre-SMS: Lagging indicators show a higher than zero value and, frequently, sawtooth pattern that may characterize out-of-control processes. Leading indicators (solid red line) are negligible.

Phase 2 — SMS Kick-off: Lagging indicators start to show improvement (down-trend). Leading indicators, reflecting the participation of the workforce, show improvement by steadily increasing.

Deviation in the ideal behaviors of the lines as seen in the above graph — such as sawtooth pattern, plateaus or, worse, a reversal in the slope over a couple of months — would indicate the necessity to intervene, for instance, with the application of the Deming Wheel methodology, more commonly known as the PDSA Cycle (Plan-Do-Study-Adjust).

Phase 3 — Maintain focus: This is a critical phase where a false sense of achievement sometimes leads to complacency. Continuous effort is necessary to avoid circumstances that may set back past gains and achievements. The occurrence of a preventable accident, a serious nonconformity per se, should trigger a specific PDSA Cycle in order to block the reoccurrence of its root cause(s).

Phase 4 — Celebration: the ultimate goal is achieved, i.e., Lagging indicators indicate zero preventable accidents. Leading indicators remain steady or increasing, thus proving to be vital components of the overall improvement in the safety performance. As with the previous phase, it’s critical to avoid complacency.

Final considerations

  • The efficiency of a SMS can be evaluated by tracking how a number of lagging and leading Indicators evolve over time (phases).
  • Mostly important: an SMS achieves its ultimate efficiency only when it leads to zero preventable accidents over extended periods of time.