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March 1, 2011

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Safety management – Root reinforcement

Barry Hough explains why embedding a health and safety index into an organisation’s safety management procedures could help strengthen its commitment to good performance in the field.

Despite many organisations’ best intentions, the perception among senior managers that health and safety is nothing more than a “Friday afternoon job” is, sadly, not uncommon.

Every health and safety practitioner wants their organisation’s health and safety management systems to form an integral part of the business. But it’s easier said than done, not least because other aspects, such as service performance, costs and quality, provide natural measures that get discussed among managers and staff on a monthly – if not weekly or daily – basis.

If the only mention that health and safety performance receives is “there were no lost-time accidents this month”, it is small wonder that both managers and staff view it as requiring less management attention, and therefore a matter of less importance. Health and safety activity gets labelled with the “Friday afternoon” tag because it only tends to get done after easier-to-measure activity is completed. Raising the potential of health and safety therefore requires a tool by which health and safety activity and performance can be planned and routinely monitored. One such mechanism is a health and safety index.

Butterflies or trains?
Ask staff: “what’s important to your organisation?” and, generally, the answer they give will depend on what gets talked about most in the business. All too often, this is governed by the latest crisis. This can lead to a “butterfly” style of management, in which management attention is seen to flit from one issue to another as problems surface and get addressed, before potentially recurring later down the line.

Of course, in the case of health and safety, waiting for a crisis to develop can be leaving it a bit late. A far more useful model is to regard the organisation as a train, in which each aspect of performance is a carriage. There is no point in regarding any particular carriage as more important than any other because if any carriage comes off the rails it can take the rest of the train with it. Each carriage therefore needs monitoring and maintenance.

Measure for measure
“What gets measured gets done” is an old adage that applies equally well to health and safety management. With the right measures we can provide the mechanism by which health and safety activity and performance can be planned and routinely monitored. This will help drive continuous improvement and, just as importantly, enable health and safety activity to be discussed alongside quality, service and cost, reinforcing its importance to the organisation and helping to build a robust health and safety culture. That’s where a health and safety index comes in.
Devising the index
A health and safety index is a way of presenting health and safety activity as a single number. It answers the key question: “Are we maintaining our efforts to actively manage health and safety?”

The index is made up of a combination of reactive and proactive measures. Reactive measures usually address things that have gone wrong – and these generate a negative score. Things done to improve safety performance provide the proactive measures, and score positively. Chosen elements should reflect an organisation’s existing or desired health and safety activity. Elements I have used in the past include:
Negative scorers:

  • Number of lost-time accidents;
  • Number of statutory notifications;
  • Number of minor accidents;
  • Risk assessments overdue; and
  • Actions overdue.

Positive scorers:

  • Number of departmental audits/inspections;
  • Actions added to the action plan;
  • Actions completed on the action plan;
  • Training completed;
  • Safety meetings held; and
  • Unusual incident reports submitted.

Each element is weighted depending on its importance. The weighting is a matter of choice but needs to encourage the desired behaviours. For example, if we want to encourage people to identify and remedy defects, simply adding items to a local action plan might score +2 per action. But, if they allow that action to become overdue it scores -3 (so don’t just add items to a list for the sake of it because you will lose out in the long run). Of course, completing actions scores even higher, say +5.
Making use of an index
While a single index number is useful in grabbing the attention of senior management, simply declaring a number will not deliver the full benefits. To maximise the payback on effort, follow these steps:

  • Choose the elements of your index and weight them to reflect your existing or planned health and safety programme. For example, if you have a behavioural safety programme, make sure there is a measure of the activity in the index;
  • Ensure that managers and staff understand how the index is made up;
  • Set index targets against planned activity. Use the target-setting process to stimulate discussion and understanding among staff about areas in which you need to do more, or less.
  • Analyse performance by considering and comparing the constituent parts. For example, is there a healthy addition and completion of actions, or are too many lapsing? There may be a large number of inspections generating a high index score but are they generating actions and adding value, or are people walking around with their eyes closed, or recording the same old defects without resolving them?
  • Use the index as the agenda of health and safety committee meetings or reviews – it will help improve understanding of what is happening in the organisation and what needs to change.

The formulation of an index requires thought, and the principal users require education, training and supervision. However, this should not be seen as a barrier to entry, but rather a golden opportunity to lay the foundations of a new safety culture.

Some common problems may be encountered in the early stages of implementation, but these can be avoided, as explained below.

It’s easy for managers to focus too much on the number and go “point chasing” without adding value. This is why the analysis is essential. To get the full benefit of the index process it is important that the returns are reviewed by management and periodically audited. When introducing an index, train managers and staff about the role of each element and provide them with a series of prompts to be used in the review process. This will aid discussion and provide an agenda for each committee or review meeting. (An example of a prompt sheet is included at the end of this article.)

In larger organisations, the index should be used on a departmental basis, with each department reporting its own performance. Inevitably, this will lead to interdepartmental benchmarking – but without a common set of definitions and consistent application it can result in unfair comparisons. It is also important to maintain consistency so that you can reliably monitor progress within a department; hence, there is a need to provide guidance. For example, if the index includes training, do you count the number of training sessions held, or the number of people trained? Do you include any and all training, however slight the health and safety content, or only specific training identified within a broader programme?

Successful application of an index requires a reliable and traceable record; however, this can be seen as bureaucratic and burdensome. It is difficult to find a way around this problem except by stressing that if health and safety is important it must be proactively managed, and that record-keeping is a necessary ‘evil’. Resistance can be reduced by ensuring that the elements chosen are acknowledged as adding value to the health and safety management programme and by having no more elements than the organisation can manage at any one time. The administrative burden can also be reduced by the use modern of information technology.

A health and safety index can be a great asset to a health and safety management programme. For example:

  • it provides the vehicle to discuss health and safety activity and outcomes on a regular basis, helping to establish health and safety as an integral part of the business;
  • it reinforces the essential features of the health and safety management programme and monitors progress;
  • it can be used to set objectives and targets based on an understanding of what needs to be done, and it facilitates the review process;
  • it brings together activity and outcomes, driving value from the efforts made; and
  • it leads to a greater understanding by managers and staff of their role in managing health and safety.

In my experience – and when used effectively – a health and safety index has been known to help treble site performance in independent health and safety audits and improve accident avoidance by more than 80 per cent.

No one wants to wait for a crisis to occur in order to focus attention on health and safety activity. Such complacency can be guarded against through effective use of a health and safety index, which provides management with a tool to demonstrate and reinforce its commitment to good health and safety performance, develop its health and safety management system, and help ensure that the right level of activity is taking place and adding value.  These are the first steps in ensuring that such crises are well and truly consigned to the past. 

Example of a prompt sheet

A health and safety index can be an invaluable management tool to improve health and safety performance. However, without a proper management review of the returns, the index becomes a meaningless number.  Below are examples of questions that can be used at review meetings to drive value.

Number of lost-time accidents and cases of occupational ill health

  • Have the lost-time accidents/cases of occupational ill health been fully investigated, with the root causes identified?
  • Has the investigation report been completed, and is it on file?
  • Have remedial actions been identified and added to the departmental action plan?

Number of minor accidents

  • Can you demonstrate that all minor accidents and cases of occupational ill health have been identified?
  • Are reports available?
  • Can you demonstrate that appropriate actions have been taken?
  • Are you making use of trend analysis?
  • Can you demonstrate that the situation is improving?

Number of risk assessments overdue

  • Is there a register of assessments showing their due date? If not, how do you know how many are out of date?
  • How have you satisfied yourself that there are sufficient assessments?
  • Are assessments giving rise to actions that are added to the action plan?
  • Have the findings of revised assessments been shared with staff?

Departmental inspections

  • Are all inspections recorded?
  • Are the main findings noted on the index return and available for discussion at the SHE committee or review meeting?
  • Are actions added to the departmental action plan?
  • Are repeated observations being eliminated?

Action plan

  • Is there a departmental action plan containing actions, responsible parties, and due date?
  • Can progress and overdue items be easily monitored?
  • Is there a clear flow of actions being added and completed?

Training sessions

  • Are health and safety training needs being identified?
  • Is a schedule of training needed so that overdue training can be identified and delivered?
  • Are managers and supervisors receiving training?

Number of safety meetings held

  • Are safety meetings held regularly?
  • Are employees represented?
  • Are proper minutes taken at such meetings?
  • Are actions generated and added to the action plan?

Barry Hough CMIOSH is a consultant with Know How Health and Safety Consultancy.

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13 years ago

An interesting article. Particularly as I have been thinking along very similar lines quite independently by establishing our own safety leadership index.

There are some useful ideas in this piece that will help me evolve our current index to a more sophisticated, and hopefully effective and beneficial tool.

Extensive use of MS Excel helps enormously in the number crunching and efficient report generation, as well as providing easy visual interpretation through use of graphs and colours.