A little goes a long way

A little goes a long way

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman challenges the way we’ve been looking at safety performance and offers an alternative approach to driving significant and sustainable safety improvement.

A common mantra is, “Good safety is good business” – but how do we quantify the value that good safety performance brings? A common method is to measure the number of accidents that occur.

According to research by the International Labour Organization and the US National Safety Council, each Lost Time Injury (LTI) costs somewhere between US$27 000 and US$43 000 (around R437 000 to R695 000) to the organisation.

So, if we simply take the number of accidents that have occurred this year, compare that to last year’s numbers, and then multiply the difference by the financial statistic of your choice we have something tangible to offer up …

Thirty fewer LTIs this year means we’ve saved almost US$1,3 million.

Fabulous! Well done!

Wait, really?

Does past performance improvement come with a guarantee for future success? Of course not! The fact that an organisation has not had any accidents for X amount of days / weeks / months / years does not mean it is immune to their occurring today, tomorrow or ever again.

A while ago your organisation may have enjoyed a period where you made great progress in reducing the number of accidents, and whilst you may have had some tough periods where there were a few “spikes” in the number of accidents occurring, overall, when you average it out, the curve on your LTI chart continues on a downward trajectory, right? But right now, you’re noticing that the curve seems to be flattening out. You’ve got an asymptotic curve.

The word asymptote is derived from the Greek asumptotos, which means “not falling together”. In simple terms, the line of the asymptotic curve is getting close to the target (in your case this may be zero accidents) but not quite converging with it. This means things are slowing down. But you know this already.

When you began your efforts in risk reduction you saw huge leaps forward in reducing accident numbers. Then, over time, those sorts of reductions have been harder and harder to achieve; and now you tell yourself and your stakeholders that all the “quick wins” have been taken, so naturally it’s harder to gain further improvement.

But, actually, what’s happening here is that things are stopping to work. The effectiveness of your approach is reducing.

Absence ≠ Existence

All too often we measure our success in safety by the absence of stuff. The fewer negative events that occur, the better. Year after year organisations set the same target of “zero accidents”. But this is crazy! Setting objectives for what we don’t want to create pulls us away from managing the things that can actually create something positive.

Rather than measure what we value, we fall into the trap of valuing what we measure. We track accident numbers and offer the latest reduction as valid indicators of performance, but where else would it be permissible to measure the negative as proof of something positive?

I would bet that your organisation doesn’t measure customer satisfaction by the fact that no-one has called to tell you that they don’t like your product. We must measure what we do, not what we don’t do. We must measure what we do to create safety.

Following the curve

“But those charts showing LTI rates are a core element in our monthly safety reports to the board!” I can hear you cry. Yes, I understand, though are they adding any real value? I suggest that they don’t. But your leaders love them, because it allows them to look good – and feel good.

The charts build confidence that everything is moving in the right direction. How many times have you presented your LTI chart at the board meeting and received sincere nods of approval and direction to “keep on doing what you’re doing”? Why does this happen?

Well, Apollo Robbins, dubbed the “Gentleman Thief”, asserts that this is because as humans we have an inbuilt natural resistance towards straight edges. Robbins reveals that the technique at the heart of many of his sleight-of-hand tricks is the way he moves his body. At risk of incurring the wrath of the Magic Circle he explains that people’s eyes are more easily misdirected to follow a curve than a straight line.

So, despite the logic that a steeply reducing straight line might be a more direct route to accident reduction, our audience is predisposed to appreciating that curve!

So, you leave the boardroom scratching your head. You have a robust management system in place, good risk assessments, thorough accident investigations, everyone attends safety training. “Okay”, you think, “we’ll push a bit harder.” But asking people to “work more safely”, or to “try harder” just won’t work. Doing more of the same thing will not lead to something different.

Despite the early wisdom of guys like Heinrich and Bird, there are literally stacks of research now that confirms there is limited predictive capability to be gained from data measuring the number of LTIs. Low numbers of LTIs do not mean that no fatal accidents will occur.

Safety performance needs to be measured against specific safety objectives, not the number of accidents that have occurred, not least because the absence of accidents does not necessarily mean the existence of safety (it could reflect under-reporting, misclassification, and other insidious factors).

If we are to move closer to our vision of a workplace that is free from injury, we need to focus on creating safety rather than reducing the numbers. Sustaining fewer accidents is an outcome of what we do.

No matter where you are on the asymptotic curve, you can have a positive influence on safety and reduce the number of accidents in your workplace, right now, by changing your perspective and encouraging others to do the same. Make an effort to shift from measuring the negative – accident frequency rates (or “lack of safety”) – towards measuring the positive (a safe workplace).

Cost benefit analysis

The potential benefits are huge. Beyond the ultimate importance of saving lives and ensuring people go home from work without harm, there’s a potentially significant benefit to the business’ bottom line too.

The International Labour Organization reckons that the annual global cost of work-related injuries and deaths totals around US$3 trillion – that’s at least 4% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work says that it’s at least EUR 476 billion every year in Europe alone. Over in America, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration calculates that the 23 000 on-the-job injuries that occur each day adds up to US$250 billion annually. And the World Monetary Fund reports that this annual cost to US business of workplace injuries is greater than the GDP of 91 countries.

The organisation for which I serve as President, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, reports that benefits of a safer workplace include a happier and healthier workforce, lower staff turnover, improved productivity and a better corporate reputation. But there’s more than that: The National Safety Council and Centers for Disease Control believe that for every dollar spent on improving workplace safety, the return-on-investment is between four and six times.

So good safety really is good business.

The old methods – of continuously adding systems and increasing paperwork – will not get companies to the desired level of providing safe and healthy workplaces, nor will they promote open, honest discussions related to safety and health at work.

Surely, safety has come to a fork in the road and decisions have to be taken on which route to follow – such as whether the orthodox approach to safety and management will be followed or whether a new approach will be taken.

An approach where the social psychology elements of risk are introduced. An approach where the mind-set of individuals is taken into account. An approach where group dynamics and the environment impact safety and the way people behave.

I believe that those employed in the safety field, as well as leaders in all industries, have to break the mould and do things differently.

It isn’t easy and I do not doubt that there will be many obstacles along the way, big and small, which includes changing our mind-sets, as safety leaders, as well as those of general management. However, these obstacles can be overcome by ensuring an understanding of the social psychology of risk and through continuous engagement with stakeholders.

It is not about companies having to replace everything that they have implemented, but rather about finding a balance between the issues related to controls, as well as the interplay of group dynamics.

On leaving the tranquillity of the forests and walking back to my apartment, I did see something related to semiotics. It was a mandala painted on the walkway next to a channel feeding off the Danube River and running through the city. It reminded me that there are opposing forces in everything that we do, in our beliefs and in our focus and efforts. We just need to understand these forces and learn to manage them to obtain the best possible outcome – in this case, the best possible outcome is providing a safe and healthy working environment for all.

Published by

Andrew Sharman

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman is managing partner of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. He’s a chartered member of SAIOSH; President of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership and Management.
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