The problem with lagging HSE indicators
Traditionally, occupational health and safety has been at least partially reactive. It has relied on lagging indicators – data collected after the event. The number of accidents and incidents that happened, rather than the number that were avoided. Companies provide PPE, machinery guards, lifting equipment, drinking water, rest stations and all the other things that have become standard in up-to-date safety-oriented organisations – but the only actual data they have comes when something goes wrong. A leading indicator, on the other hand, makes it possible to prevent accidents by detecting and mitigating risks.
The link between leadership and HSE indicators
A study by Monash University in Australia reviewed the experience of 3.578 employees in 66 workplaces to find out what effect leadership could have on the relationship between lagging and leading HSE indicators. That and other studies determined that leadership plays an essential role in enabling leading indicators.
The management level at which leadership is most effective
Leadership behaviour has been shown to be important in deciding what attitudes employees will have to the job and what behaviours they will adopt. And the leadership being discussed here is mid-range in the company: supervisors and middle managers rather than board level. Study after study has emphasised the influence of supervisors in the workplace on actual safety performance.
If supervisors are seen to strongly support safe working practices, the data shows that safety policies are executed better and that safety performance consistently exceeds that where supervisors’ support is less enthusiastic or even nominal. An article in the Journal of Safety Research on predicting safety culture described a study that had shown that the role played by mid-level managers predicted the overall safety culture in the organisation better than anything involving more senior or more junior managers. And what it comes down to is very simple: a manager who is focused on safe practices and safe outcomes will generate an atmosphere and a set of attitudes among the workforce that makes those safe outcomes reality.
What can the HSE practitioner take from this?
The man or woman charged with keeping employees safe and well may sometimes look at the information becoming available from academia and think, “Yes, fine, but what can I actually DO about it?” Probably the most important lesson is that, if middle management sees preserving employee safety as their number one priority, and if they make that clear in what they say and what they do, then safety performance will improve.
What the research also tells us is the importance of moving away from a focus entirely on lagging indicators – “What has happened in the past?” – and towards a focus primarily on leading indicators – “What is happening now?” And what are these leading indicators? It’s commonly accepted that, in HSE, the leading indicators we should be focusing on include:
· Near misses
· Surveys of employee perception
· Preventive maintenance programmes
· Hazard assessments and inspections
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