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).


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Workplace Health and Safety

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Occupational Health & Safety