New Rules of Safety: Weights, dates and frequency rates – when is ‘good enough’ good enough?

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By Andrew Sharman

Dropping my bag at Capetown International Airport today I was surprised to be told that it was overweight.  I have a handy portable digital luggage scale with which I check my hold bag before heading to the airport – it had shown me 18.8kg, but the check in clerk advised it was over 21kg.  What happened?

Later that day I was searching for an email from a client, tapping their name into my phone I was astounded to find an email from them dated 1 January 1970 – before I was even born!

We might simply say that in both cases there was a flaw in the devices being used, but in this modern world numbers are EVERYTHING it seems.  A friend on LinkedIn celebrates achieving 500 connections – is this good news?  A colleague is infatuated with social media – each time he posts something he expects at least 1,000 ‘likes’.  This week his latest dispatch earned him 432.  Does this mean it wasn’t any good?

The point, though, is that even in the best situations, accurate measurement is challenging. And when it comes to matters of workplace safety it’s much more difficult than simple weights and dates. As we strive to better our Accident Frequency Rates we look to the past and compute our LTIRs to compare them against historical industry and peer averages. But these LGI charts (yes, LGI – aren’t they really just Looking Good Indexes to make the Board feel like all is going to plan?) don’t really give us a true picture. The absence of accidents doesn’t equal the existence of safety. Accordingly, I propose that when it comes to data measurement a healthy dose of scepticism is required.  So here’s four suggested tests for your safety metrics:

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  1. See clearly
    Be clear on what it is you want to know. In safety our typical measure is the number or rate of accidents occurring. But what really does this tell us? How safe we are right now, how safe we’ll be, or simply how many events we have had in the past?
  2. Aim sharp(ish)
    How closely do your measurements line up with what you want to achieve? An initiative to ‘raise employee awareness’ may be difficult to measure directly, so you may have to settle for indirect loosely-related measures. Are these measures sufficient for you? Aim to define ‘good enough’ indicators from those that are ‘not what I had in mind’.
  3. Understand weakness
    Just like the luggage scales, all measurement tools have inherent weaknesses: employees lie in surveys, data is manipulated, accidents are ‘re-classified’ or ‘swept under the carpet’ and Lost Time Injury charts become ‘Looking Good Indexes’ to please the Boardroom. Where’s the potential weakness in your measurement?
  4. Scratch and Sniff
    The old adage ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ resonates today as measurement is increasingly important for those working in safety. But are you managing your measures or are your measures really managing you? It’s vital to bear in mind that all measurement has the potential to go awry. Whilst good measures enlighten and guide us forward, bad measures mislead and develop false confidence in the past. It’s time to shift our attention from preventing accidents to creating safety and focus forward on what we want rather than what we don’t want.

We humans have a tremendous capacity for ignoring what’s right in front of our noses. We blithely drive incorrectly down one-way streets, or through ‘road closed’ signs just because our GPS tells us that’s the way to go. Similar mistakes are made at work as we over-rely on data even when something ‘doesn’t feel right’. In this age of Big Data, rarely do we consider that perhaps the measurement isn’t right. When something doesn’t smell right, scratch the surface and dig a bit deeper. Did the Deepwater Horizon rig really have 7 years without an accident just before it killed 11 men? Subsequent investigations have reveal a poor culture and lack of leadership – were accidents managed out of the measurement process in order to maintain the ‘zero accidents’ status of the rig?

The old adage ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ resonates today as measurement is increasingly important for those working in safety.  But are you managing your measures or are your measures really managing you?  It’s vital to bear in mind that all measurement has the potential to go awry.  Whilst good measures enlighten and guide us forward, bad measures mislead and develop false confidence in the past.  It’s time to shift our attention from preventing accidents to creating safety and focus forward on what we want rather than what we don’t want.

Andrew’s best-selling book From Accidents to Zero: A Practical Guide to Improving Your Workplace Safety Culture is available to SHPonline readers with an exclusive 25% discount. A new book Safety Savvy, co-authored with Dr Tim Marsh, is also available on this special offer.  Use the code SHP25 at www.fromaccidentstozero.com to order your copies of both books now.

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Categories: Blog, New Safety and Health


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safetylady

As you intimate, the ‘cant manage what cant measure’ doesn’t hold up well in many important but indefinable situations, but is used as a mantra ‘stick’ to beat some form of measurement, no matter how silly or pointless, out of those who oversee activities, whether running the health service, a school, or health & safety. Safety practitioners will always produce data / graphs on accidents even if the numbers are single digits, because that is what is asked for, expected, taught, and is easy to do. But every adage has an opposite: “If something can be counted it probably doesn’t… Read more »

Author Bio ▼

Andrew Sharman

Andrew is the CEO of RMS Switzerland, a global consultancy specialising in safety behaviour, culture and leadership. With offices in the UK, and Switzerland.  RMS has an enviable track record of improving culture and enabling excellence for NGOs and blue chip organisations around the world through industry sectors including aviation, automotive, mining, construction, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and FMCGs. Find out more at www.RMSswitzerland.com

Andrew is also Professor of Leadership & Safety Culture at the European Centre for Executive Development in Fontainebleau, France, and Professor of Risk Management at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.  He is a Chartered Fellow and Vice President of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH); a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management; and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership & Management.

Far from being risk-averse, he loves adventure sports including climbing, free flying, sea kayaking and swimming with sharks. He uses these pursuits to re-energise the language, perceptions and functions of safety and risk management and align the disciplines with broader organisational issues driving positive impact and enhancing the performance of individuals, teams and businesses.

Read Andrew’s New Rules of Safety series on SHP here.

Andrew’s book From Accidents to Zero is one of the fastest-selling books on safety culture of the 21st  century, find out more at www.fromaccidentstozero.com and enter code SHP 25 to receive an exclusive 25% discount for SHPonline readers.

October 6, 2016

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