Measuring workplace safetyThere is a preoccupation in most industries for measuring safety using the frequency or severity of lost time accidents and incidents. Regrettably, there is only a very tenuous link between safety in the workplace and the number of lost time accidents. The reasons for this are many and varied but it is becoming fairly obvious that invisible injuries such as back strains, muscle strains and repetitive strain damage are a problem in injury statistics. There is a growing body of opinion that a number of people will use these non-visible injuries as a way of having time away from work. We have found that as soon as non-visible injuries reached 20% of all injuries a problem of false claims emerged.

We also found that areas and sites that had average or less than average leadership skills in the workforce incurred the most accidents. In other words, the reported accident rate was a reflection of the leadership skills in that area. One of the biggest problems of looking at accident rates as a measure of safety is that it is quite possible to work unsafely for many years and never incur an accident. This is probably one of the most important factors in accident prevention or improving workplace safety. Behavior speaks louder than words or statistics.

There is also a problem in the way that we train people for leadership positions. We use academic methods to teach practical skills and no longer is that good enough. We wouldn’t use academic methods to teach people to swim because we know it wouldn’t work. Yet in all our wisdom we use classroom techniques to teach people what is essentially a practical skill. There is plenty of evidence around the world from research that this method doesn’t work but we persist in it. You can go to any website promoted by training companies and they will exhort you to join their leadership program which is totally classroom-based. Furthermore, they will charge a lot of money for it. So the return on the leadership training investment is pitifully low.

To create safer workplaces we need to be able to train our supervisors, team leaders and managers in practical skills that are not normally on the agenda of most on-the-job training programs. We need to coach them how to influence, how to lead change, how to run a safety observation program, how to involve their staff in creating a safer workplace, how to use positive reinforcement as a way of managing performance, and we need to do this in a practical environment where they work rather than a classroom.

The failure to do this will result in a continuing cycle of workplace accidents and unsafe behavior. We have used the wrong methods and measured the wrong outcomes. This is why we are still having so many accidents and incidents in the workplace