When we measure safety, what is it that we are actually measuring?

Around a braai, a dear friend who is a fitness guru explained how many people waste their time standing on a scale. Standing on a scale does not bring about weight loss. It only tells us how much we weigh.

Instead of focusing on how much weight we want to lose, it will be more beneficial to identify the actions that will get us there. Starting a fitness regimen is recommended. Choosing a healthy eating plan and cutting out fizzy drinks will make a tremendous difference.

Rather than measuring our weight, we should gauge how well we are sticking to the plan. Concentrating on the activities that will get us there is more practical, easier to measure and more motivating when we succeed.

Did I drink a coke? Did I go to the gym? How many times this week did I follow my eating plan? By being true to these activities, the chance of realising the goal will significantly increase.

The same is applicable in our desire to reach zero harm. I was with a client the other day, and I asked how it was going in their safety journey. He smiled and gladly told me how they had not had a fatality or LTI for the year. I asked if that was by luck or design? Sadly, he did not know.

Like standing on a scale to measure weight, measuring lagging indicators such as frequency rates is not a guarantee of not having an incident.

The fact that there were no injuries is not an indicator that the work was done safely. It is possible for someone to arrive home safely after binge drinking and driving at over 200 km/h. Measuring his safety by the fact that he was not in a car crash is not an indication that he was safe.

Lagging indicators have no preventative value. We want to fill our car’s petrol tank before we run out of fuel. To do that we need indicators that can help us to take proactive steps.

Most leading indicators would naturally include housekeeping, maintenance, training, audits and risk assessments, among others. For this article, I would like to highlight one that is often overlooked but absolutely essential; and that is employee engagement.

If people are not committed to the company, it is unlikely they will fervently adhere to any of the company’s safety initiatives. Having an engaged workforce should be prominent in any safety strategy.

In a previous article, I referred to Gallup’s 2016 study, that surveyed 1,8-million workers in 73 countries across 49 industries and found that companies that had high levels of employee engagement also had 70-percent fewer safety incidents.

Gallup’s research also found that 86 percent of people in the workplace are disengaged. Their hearts are not in what they do. The number-one reason for this is because of the leader to whom they report. There is an adage that “people do not leave companies, they leave bosses”.

Leaders need to intentionally build a working and safety culture that activates their team’s morale. Foremost is how they treat people. Being abrupt, short-tempered, rude uncaring or refusing to listen will definitely have a negative impact on the commitment level of their people.

It is too easy to have posters and mission statements that declare “people are our top priority” or “people are our most important asset” or “we care for our people”.

What we really value and believe is seen in times of immense pressure, or when something goes wrong. When targets are not being met, are the instructions to pick up the pace, insinuating safety must take a back seat, or is working safely still being promoted?

If someone gets injured, does the manager find out if they are alright, or do they want to know who messed up? This is when workers see if the company truly cares and if it sees them as the most important asset.

As part of the leading indicators for safety, leaders should constantly be asking themselves how they have engaged with their people and how they have demonstrated care.

On the last walkabout did the conversation gravitate around work, or was it around connecting and building relationships? Was the discussion centred on the things the worker has potentially missed and done wrong, or was the emphasis placed on listening to their concerns and suggestions?

Is there a culture where workers are too afraid to make decisions and report near-misses because of the fear of reprisal? Alternatively, do people feel empowered to take ownership of their work and be responsible for their safety and the safety of others?

This type of culture does not magically happen. It requires effort and attention. It requires leadership. It needs to be a priority.

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