Safety First

Safety First: Back to the Future?

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Why lagging indicators may not be the best metrics for tracking safety.

In 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published 29 CFR Part 1904, “Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illnesses,” requiring employers to record and report work-related fatalities, injuries and illnesses. The responsibility for collecting and analyzing this data was delegated to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Obviously, these reporting requirements are based on the impact of incidents that have occurred in the past.

The BLS uses this data to identify safety areas of concern throughout the U.S. industrial sector. For the waste and recycling sector, events from 2011 indicate that the waste and recycling industry had the fourth highest fatality rate in the nation (34 deaths). Recent data has been updated to show that the waste and recycling industry reduced its fatality rate in 2012 from the previous year and is now regarded as the sixth most dangerous profession (26 deaths). This translates to a worker fatality rate of 27.1 for 2012 compared with 41.2 in the previous year (These rates are used to compare our industry to other industries).

In keeping with the continued use of these historical metrics, safety professionals (and regulators) tend to evaluate success or failure in the safety arena by looking at what has happened in the past. Safety performance has traditionally been evaluated using “after the loss” measurements including Worker’s Compensation losses and costs due to accidents. Since these measurements are based on incidents that have already transpired, they are easy to identify or calculate and can be useful in identifying trends based on past performances. These “reactive” or “lagging” indicators have a long history of use and have become the accepted standard for measuring the success of safety programs in the marketplace.

Looking back after incidents have occurred, evaluating the problem and trying to change the results for future occurrences is too late when dealing with accidents that have led to injuries and fatalities. A major concern with this type of analysis is that the events contributing to these statistics have already occurred – the workers in these statistics have already suffered a catastrophic injury or been buried and are gone from their families. Lagging indicators provide important data about process safety failures but show the need for changes only after something has gone wrong. Although the use of lagging indicators is embedded within our historical safety culture (OSHA regulators focus resources on industries with high fatality rates, insurance companies raise rates for companies with poor safety records and so on) perhaps a better solution than depending solely on lagging indicators would be to anticipate and prevent fatalities and incidents before they happen.

For our industry members to reduce fatality and injury rates, we need to be proactive versus reactive. Over the past few years, improved safety performance has often been associated with different types of measurable activities with indications that some of these metrics can be used as leading indicators for safety performance. Examples of metrics for these activities:

  • The size of a safety budget in relation to the overall budget.
  • The number of safety inspections where identified deficiencies are addressed in a timely manner.
  • The number of safety meetings with management participation.
  • The number of ways safety issues are communicated from employees to management (e.g., suggestion boxes or other feedback mechanisms).
  • The number of ways safety issues are communicated from management to employees (“toolbox talks,” non-safety meetings where safety is still addressed, regular safety-related communications to workers – e.g., Safety Monday, near-misses).

Implementation of successful business approaches like Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analyses to identify potential problem areas before they are problems or Total Quality Management efforts where employees are involved in continual improvement efforts results in proactive approaches to safety and uses leading indicators as metrics.

Although lagging indicators are important and should be used to monitor successful implementation of safety interventions, emphasizing leading indicators can have a more sustainable impact by identifying safety deficiencies before potentially serious outcomes result.

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What's Safety First?

Phil Hagan, director of safety for the National Waste & Recycling Associa, keeps an eye on safety issues affecting the waste and recycling industries.

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Phil Hagan

Phil Hagan is the Director of Safety for the National Waste & Recycling Association, a practicing attorney and teaches at Georgetown University.
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