4 important steps to unleash the potential of safety measurement

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Friday, 6 May, 2022 - 12:00
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National News

When it comes to safety measurement frameworks, senior leaders are starting to get the message that lagging measures have limited value and there are better ways to evaluate safety performance, according to health, safety, risk management and HR specialist consulting firm Work Science.

Leading companies are reframing how they look at safety, health and wellbeing performance, then implementing bespoke measurement frameworks to suit, said Scott Paine, managing director at Work Science.

“Our experience suggests there is a spectrum of approaches in the market,” said Paine. “Organisational leaders still want to measure the absence of injury and illness, then compare their rates to others. Innovative companies are designing performance frameworks that complement their safety, health and wellbeing strategies.”

Paine, who will be leading a panel discussion on the evolution of safety measurement frameworks at the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference which will be held in Melbourne from 25-26 May 2022, observed safety professionals have been thinking about augmenting lag indicators for years.

“The awareness and understanding amongst boards and executives is still catching up. This gap presents an opportunity to educate leadership teams on the organisational benefits delivered through more contemporary safety measurement frameworks. The challenge is how to get this information to the right place at the right time,” he said.

“Large entities that procure services can ask their contractors to showcase their safety performance frameworks and spotlight good performance. I believe encouraging this activity will generate discussion and help prioritise contractor focus on more useful safety measures.”

Dr Tristan Casey, chief scientist at Work Science, echoed Paine’s comments and said most mature organisations have realised that relying exclusively on reactive indicators is problematic.

“However, the key challenge is that there is little clarity about what could be some suitable alternative measures. Digging deeper, I believe this challenge arises because senior leaders are operating from the following assumptions and beliefs,” said Casey:

  • Variation in lagging indicators is suggestive of meaningful change; either significant improvement or decline in safety performance.
  • Analysis of lagging indicators can provide insights into where to target or focus attention for safety campaigns/initiatives.
  • Comparisons or benchmarking of lagging indicators can reveal insights regarding the maturity or sophistication of an organisation’s safety management system.


“First, lagging indicators happen so rarely that most variation is due to chance fluctuations rather than being due to systemic problems that impact safety performance,” said Casey. “Second, the best that lagging indicators can tell is that that somewhere in our organisation, either protective defences or proactive capacities have been inadequate to compensate for unhelpful or dangerous sources of performance variability, and an incident has resulted. “Finally, benchmarking assumes that there is one set of ‘true’ measures that every organisation should adopt, and which are accurate representations of the underlying and abstract concept of safety. However, as measures become more universal and generic, we tend to find that their predictive capacity and overall usefulness starts to fall.”

Casey added the most common challenge is shifting the mindset away from a preference for generic and less targeted set of measures, and towards organisationally-relevant and suitably contextualised measures.

These measures include not only outcomes (i.e., negative events like incidents) but also monitor the current state of safety and, through their implementation, actually drive safety forwards in the organisation.

While generic measures can be used as a broad and coarse instrument (less frequently, such as an annual safety survey), Casey said it is the more frequent, contextualised measures that will truly keep organisational stakeholders informed about the current state of safety and performance outcomes.

In addressing such challenges, the starting point is always strategy and culture, according to Paine: “is the company in a state of relative normalcy, and looking to keep its safety, health and wellbeing performance within a defined range? Or is it in change management mode looking to move from current state to future state? What current data set is available?”

Once the safety health and wellbeing strategy is understood, Paine said a performance framework can be designed.

The next challenge is designing a data collection and reporting framework to deliver the desired performance outcomes, and he said scientists can help contextually design measurement frameworks to achieve desired safety outcomes.

Casey said organisations can take four important steps to unleash the potential of safety measurement:

  • Move beyond a simplistic ‘lead/lag’ measurement distinction and instead think deeply about what the measure is achieving or influencing; for example, ‘driving’ measures contribute to safety capability through specific activities and actions (e.g., safety leadership practices), ‘monitoring’ measures assess the current state of safety (e.g., safety climate), ‘outcome’ measures capture both positive successes (e.g., exceptionally positive performances) and negative failures (e.g., incidents divided into categories of severity of harm/damage caused), and ‘learning’ measures that stimulate reflection and improvement (e.g., corrective actions implemented).
  • Consider the ‘sense-making’ activities that occur when safety measurement information is received. For instance, just as important as the data itself is the quality of the ‘information environment’ in which the measures are discussed. Many high-profile disasters have highlighted that poor-quality communication and information flow precipitate major organisational safety incidents. Creating a Board and Executive team climate whereby bad news is discussed openly and constructively (rather than discouraged or downplayed), learning rather than blame is emphasised, and authentic inquiries into what went wrong and why (moving beyond human error into a complex messiness of multiple causes) will be much more fruitful and productive.
  • Customise the measurement framework to fit within the boundaries of the organisation’s WHS strategy. In other words, align measures with the aims and objectives that inform the strategy so it can be driven forwards, monitored, and evaluated for its impact on performance and outcomes.
  • Cascade the measures framework down the organisation to ensure a level-specific approach. For instance, the types of measures that will be of interest and useful to Board members will be very different to the measures that are relevant to frontline supervisors and workers. “We have seen examples of Board members and executives discussing the frequency of hand injuries; it is much more useful for them to be discussing measures such as safety resourcing shortfalls, due diligence indexes, and other higher-level or macro measures that are more within their sphere of control and influence,” said Casey.


Work Science advises a range of Commonwealth and state government entities, according to Paine, who said entities with large infrastructure spends have an opportunity to foster innovation and enable contemporary performance frameworks to emerge.

“Rather than prescribe a set of safety, health and wellbeing indicators, Work Science advises the provision of performance framework guidelines,” he said.

“This encourages contractors to think contextually, then provide their client with a performance report that contains lead and lag indicators that make sense and add value to the contractor. Spotlight and reward innovation that leads to better performance. Invest in resources that can coach, advise and reward rather than prescribe and supervise.”

For OHS professionals, Paine said it is important to arm themselves with the latest safety health and wellbeing evidence, then determine how to talk to boards and executives in a language they connect with.

“Gaining the commitment from senior leadership teams is just as important as the performance framework itself. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good and be ready to evolve your performance framework as thresholds and milestones are met,” he said.

“Executives are used to benchmarking TRIFR and LTIFR against their peers. Benchmarking can be more difficult for lead indicators because there are no consistently published lead indicator data sets, so be ready to have that discussion.”

Casey advised OHS professionals to become familiar with a broader range of accident and incident causation models, and through these models, develop insights into the types of measures that will be useful for the organisation.

For instance, he said lessons can be learned from models such as:

  • Perrow’s Normal Accident Theory (i.e., incidents can propagate dramatically in tightly coupled environments – this might be important for lean manufacturing organisations where buffers and ‘slack’ are intentionally removed)
  • High-Reliability Organising (i.e., the cultural practices that underlie collective mindfulness), and
  • Rasmussen’s dynamic risk modelling framework (i.e., measures of the intensity and presence of safety boundaries, signs that the safety boundary has been crossed, and measures regarding the readiness to anticipate and recover performance in danger zones).

“Learn about these models and implement a diversity of measures to ensure your framework itself is resilient and able to detect the signs of risk, as well as signs of positive capacity to respond effectively,” he said.

Paine will be leading a discussion panel on the evolution of safety measurement frameworks at the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held in Melbourne from 25-26 May 2022. Panellists for the session include: Emma Skulander, COO, NSW Health Infrastructure; Sharron O’Neill, associate professor, School of Business, University of NSW; and Kurt Warren, national HSE & quality manager, Hansen Yuncken. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.