HammerTech sat down with safety expert Michael Fackler, Trinity Safety Group, to discuss what data we should pay attention to and how we can improve the way we measure safety performance.
As a safety professional I care about people. In business, I care about performance and measurable results. And yet, I find myself prefacing any discussion about measuring safety performance with the obligatory “I’m not talking about accident-based metrics” statement. Why do I do that? It’s likely due to some base human need to affiliate with others and be socially accepted that is hard-wired into my brain. My brain likely senses disagreement and the risk of being isolated from people ‘on the right side of safety theory’. But safety professionals should not fear being ostracized for the belief that people should be held accountable for performance. As with a lot of things, the devil is in the details. As safety professionals we must become more comfortable talking about what works, what doesn’t, and why. We have to understand that it’s okay to talk about metrics and safety performance in the same sentence. And in order to be taken seriously as business leaders, not just safety leaders, we must learn how to hold people accountable and be held accountable, to higher levels of performance. To get there requires getting comfortable talking about “the numbers”.
The question is, what numbers should we talk about? I can tell you, it’s not about accidents. As far back as 1996, safety pioneer Dan Petersen wrote how measuring performance through accident based metrics was a "waste of time" and "meaninglessness." (Petersen, 1996, pp. 15-33; Petersen, 2001) Petersen stated that organizations should use “anything but accident based metrics” to measure the performance of management, and instead focus on the activities designed to drive safety performance improvement.
As safety professionals we must become more comfortable talking about what works, what doesn’t, and why. We have to understand that it’s okay to talk about metrics and safety performance in the same sentence.
Business leaders understand that to drive performance improvement in any area of business, requires an understanding that individual performance is a product of the conditions and environment in which people work. Safety professionals should take a lesson from the business world and work harder to understand how organization systems and processes influence how individuals communicate, collaborate, plan and execute to get work done safely. Understanding work from this holistic perspective is supported in the safety literature. In 2001 Petersen wrote;
“An unsafe act, an unsafe condition, an accident: all these are symptoms of something wrong in the management system." (Petersen, 2001)
And again in 2009, the Department of Energy established a series of guidelines for all DOE facilities titled Human Performance Improvement Handbook Volume 1: Concepts and Principles. (Department of Energy , 2009) Originally born out of an effort to improve operational safety at nuclear power generation sites, the guide contended the following;
“…human performance is a system that comprises a network of elements that work together to produce repeatable outcomes. The system encompasses organizational factors, job-site conditions, individual behavior, and results. The system approach puts a new perspective on human error: it is not a cause of failure, alone, but rather the effect or symptom of deeper trouble in the system.”
And finally, “New View” academic and safety theorists Sidney Dekker wrote that any strategy to improve safety must include a focus on organizational systems and processes. Dekker stated as much in his "Field Guide to Understanding Human Error";
"a system isn't automatically safe; people have to create safety through practice at all levels of the organization." (Dekker, 2014, pp. 4-6)
It’s not that accident-based metrics don’t matter, it’s just that other metrics matter more! A lot more. Here is an example of what I am talking about. Recently, I posted the following question on LinkedIn:
“How safe is your workplace today? How do you know? Really, how do you know? I'm interested in what metrics people use to measure 'safety'. I am not interested in TRIR, LTIR, # of days without a blah, blah, blah. Give me something meaningful!
I’m connected to some fairly smart safety people on LinkedIn and I was genuinely curious to know the metrics people actually use everyday to measure performance. That was it. I made no statement regarding the validity of metrics, or advocated for which metrics I found useful. And yet, less than five people provided any real substantive response. The other responses ranged from condescending to comical, including these nuggets of wisdom.
- There is this crazy old, borderline magical measurement tool called.....conversations
- Get out of the office and have a look - all the time, and talk to employees...
- measuring activities is meaningless.
- You go and look. It’s not much more complex than this.
- I ask the people doing the work
Let me be clear, I am a HUGE advocate for having conversations and gaining the perspective of people who actually do the work. But there is obviously more to managing safety than just walking around and talking to employees. Organizations can’t ‘create safety’ just by walking around talking with people. The frequency, tone, scope, and outcomes from those conversations all matter to varying degrees. I can have a hundred conversations over the course of a year, with the same person, every single day and only talk about the weather, sports, or our favorite foods. Some would argue that either way, these conversations build trust, and trust is central to relationships, and psychological safety, which promotes knowledge sharing. But would these conversations be more productive and impactful if they were more targeted? What if leaders were better trained to deliver these conversations? What if we had effective ways to collect the information shared during these conversations, analyze it and act on it. Would these metrics provide insight into our ability to impact results.
Very few metrics, if any, are very useful by themselves. It’s only when analyzed in the broader context of other metrics can they begin to form a broader picture of the activities (both quality and quantity) the results, and its impact on relationships and people. How an organization ‘creates safety’ manifests itself in what gets done every single day. It’s what people, across all levels of the organization see, say and do , to not only get work done, but get work done, safely.
...there is obviously more to managing safety than just walking around and talking to employees. Organizations can’t ‘create safety’ just by walking around talking with people. The frequency, tone, scope, and outcomes from those conversations all matter to varying degrees.
Putting it all Together
When I think about measuring safety performance, two quotes come to mind. The first, “What gets measured gets managed” attributed to Jack Welch - Former CEO and Chairman of GE. The second, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”, attributed to William Bruce Cameron. (Cameron , pg. 13).
If you want to improve safety, seek alternatives to accident-based metrics. Focus on systems and processes that support critical thinking around risk, facilitate communication, collaboration, and continuous improvement. Channel your inner-Jack Welch and seek ways to measure the critical things people in your organization do everyday that indicate that working safe is ‘just how we do things’, yet be mindful that not everything that you measure matters, and not everything that matters can be measured.
Continue the conversation and connect with Michael Fackler on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelfackler/
Cameron, William B. 1963, Informal Sociology, a casual introduction to sociological thinking by William Bruce Cameron. Fifth ed., New York, Random House, 1963.
Petersen, D. (1996). Analyzing Safety System Effectiveness, (3 ed.). Danvers: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Petersen, D. (2001). Safety Management: A Human Approach . Des Plaines, IL : ASSE .
United States Dept. of Justice. (2013, April 12). Former Shaw Group Safety Manager At TVA Nuclear Sites Sentenced To 78 Months In Prison For Major Fraud Case Against The United States. Retrieved 2 20, 2017, from www.justice.gov: https://www.justice.gov/usao-edtn/pr/former-shaw-group-safety-manager-tva-nuclear-sites-sentenced-78-months-prison-major