Thursday, October 18, 2012

How do you develop leading indicators for occupational safety and health?

Most of us are familiar with the concepts of “lagging” (sometimes referred to as “trailing”) and “leading” indicators from the world of economics. GDP and “average duration of unemployment claims” tell us about where we have been and, therefore, are generally considered lagging indicators of the relative health of the economy. Housing starts and permits are great examples of leading indicators. If these are rising, the demand for labour and supplies to build the new housing units is likely to rise in the near future. As the housing units are completed, demand for consumer goods like furnishings to fill them is also likely to rise.

The power of leading indicators is obvious to those gauging current conditions and making plans. If housing starts are rising, retailers of furniture and appliances are more likely to increase orders and hire new staff; manufacturers are likely increase production and inventories in anticipation of rising demand.

In workers’ compensation and OH&S, traditional measures tend to be lagging indicators. Injury rates, injury counts, and “days injury free” are, at best, lagging indicators of safety—they may tell us something about where we were but little (if anything) about where we are going. These measures are heavily weighted to the past and may mask serious safety and health risks in the current workplace. Developing leading indicators at the operational, sectoral and even jurisdictional levels helps focus resources and attention where it is most needed and provides early signals of the effectiveness of current programs or initiatives.

To design a leading indicator, you need a logic model, a framework that takes into account the near-term, mid-term and long-term objectives that will lead you to your goal.

Suppose your goal is a safer, healthier workplace and you have an objective of reducing strain injuries in your manufacturing plant. You might want to start by identifying the factors that lead to these injuries. Ergonomics is an obvious factor but you could get more granular or more general in your consideration. Loads, repetitions, and workstation design might be factors at the individual level while work procedures, the pace of work, and safety culture might be important factors at the operational or corporate levels.

Now that you have a model of how the injuries occur, you can think about interventions at the causative level that will contribute to greater prevention. Perhaps you have been convinced as I have that safety culture is vitally important and you have initiatives to improve safety culture in your operation. Annual external audits or random quarterly surveys could help you determine both the current climate and trend over time. If your model is correct, improvements in your safety culture will lead to outcomes like improved adherence to safe work procedures, more safety-oriented content in supervisor-worker interactions, more rapid time from hazard identification to removal—all of which have been proven to reduce injuries and make workplaces safer and healthier.

Other examples of leading indicator metrics for the objective of reducing strain injuries I’ve come across in industry include:

• % of workstation ergonomic evaluations completed

• % of employees/supervisors trained in ergonomics

• % of ergonomic action items addressed

• % of employees engaged in fitness and wellness program

Developing a logic model and selecting a leading indicator forces you to understand your business, how injuries occur and what research tells us will prevent them. That understanding is critical for good management as well as OH&S.

Don’t bother developing logic models, selecting leading indicators, and continually measuring indicators if you think it will be easy. Making the time and effort is hard but worthwhile.

My favourite quote on this topic makes the point very well:

"Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement.

If you can't measure something, you can't understand it.

If you can't understand it, you can't control it.

If you can't control it, you can't improve it.”

- H. James Harrington (Author, columnist, a Fellow of the British Quality Control Organization and the American Society for Quality Control).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Can you rewire your safety culture?

I was invited to deliver the keynote presentation at the “Make It Safe” conference a few days ago. The event was hosted by the FIOSA-MIOSA Safety Alliance of BC, the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters of BC, and WorkSafeBC.

The FIOSA — MIOSA Safety Alliance of BC, is a not-for-profit industry organization that seeks to address challenges and opportunities specific to food & beverage processing and manufacturing and to set industry standards for health and safety.

The industries represented in the room were ideal for my topic, “Rewiring your Safety Culture.” Most participants had great safety backgrounds, but my goal was to take their thinking about safety beyond the lagging indicators such as injury free days, injury counts, and reportable injury frequency rates. The manufacturing sector has made huge strides in improving safety and health but to take the industry to the next level of safety will mean rewiring the way we think about safety and how we measure our progress.

Manufacturing has been the focus of much research on safety culture. The rich research in this sector provided me with examples from oil refineries, commercial bakeries, electronics manufacturing, and metal fabrication to illustrate my point.

I also happen to like James Reason’s work on human factors because I find it connects with audiences. Briefly, his “Swiss Cheese” model is widely used and easy to visualize. Reason conceptualizes the barriers, safeguards and defences (like training, supervision, safe work procedures, and equipment design) that protect workers as being imperfect with holes of varying sizes and location representing active and latent gaps in the protection. Workers can only get hurt when the hazard in the work environment follows a trajectory through the holes to harm the worker.

Adding “Six Sigma” (an innovation born in the manufacturing sector) to Reason's model allowed the audience to visualize my argument for a rewired safety culture. They agreed that active defects in training, supervision, adherence to safe work procedures can be eliminated or reduced by applying the Six Sigma methodology.

Taking Reason’s model, I argued for a re-conceptualization of the holes as “defects” in the barriers, safeguards, and defences that would protect workers from harm. Six Sigma methodologies are all about reducing variation and improving processes to ensure defects fall below the 3.4 million per million level. Through improvements in training, supervision, and adherence to safe work procedures, we can reduce the number, and size, of defects in these defences and reduce the probability of harm to workers. As defects approach Six Sigma levels, injuries to workers will approach zero. Selecting leading indicators consistent with the approach completes a rewired approach to safety and safety culture.

In this competitive world, the one big question audiences ask about rewiring their thinking about safety and changing their safety culture, relates to costs. The good news is that most of this rewired thinking about safety is not expensive. Small investments and equipment can have a big effect. The big change is in mindset; the big benefit is in saved lives, lowered costs, and improved productivity.

Because my job for much of the last thirty years has involved environmental scanning, I collect stories and examples from other jurisdictions. One of my current favourites from the manufacturing world is for Simms Fishing Products. WorkSafeMT has highlighted this small manufacturing firm in a video available on YouTube that makes the point: it is possible — and worth it — to rewire your safety culture.

Take a look at the video and take the next step: start rewiring!