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By: Thomas Carson

Context is Key – Especially for Safety Indicators

I am struck by the number of safety professionals who make statements like, “I wish senior management had never heard of TRIR.” They don’t like the total recordable incident rate measure and don’t believe it adds value to the safety conversation. This attitude got a re-enforcing boost with the April 2021 edition of Professional Safety Journal where an article demonstrated the statistical invalidity of using TRIR as a predictor of future safety performance and cross-company comparisons.

I get it, and don’t disagree with the predictive weakness, but the chances of TRIR disappearing as a measure of performance is about the same as the NFL deciding to stop keeping score in football games. At some point, everyone wants to know if an organization keeps its workers safe, so the lagging TRIR measure isn’t going away.

When it comes to TRIR, Safety Professionals must educate company leaders on the proper role of lagging indicators. Their purpose is to report what happened yesterday, nothing more, just like the final score of a football game. The day-to-day activities that an organization conducts to stay safe likely include skills training, job hazard analysis (JHAs), task coaching, and observational reporting by employees, as well as situational hazard identification and controls known by names like high-energy control assessment (Matthew Hallowell) or Hazard Recognition Plus (promoted for the last 20 years by Michael Fleming/Ann Lindsey).

Since safety professionals are responsible for designing, implementing, managing, and refining programs that support safe work environments, they can impact the daily activities that keep employees safe. Effective programs include:

  • Processes and procedures that support identifying and mitigating hazards
  • Implementing skills and cultural training to ensure employees are prepared to do their jobs competently and safely
  • Developing and presenting metrics that are appropriate for managing operating activities in each unique environment, as well as inform management about the importance of these pre-emptive activities.

The right mix of activities and resulting metrics depends on each environment. Safety professionals must select the balance of activities that will be most effective to achieve the EHS performance goals of their company. Here I have a curious confession: I am a fan of Heinrich’s pyramid, not for predictive value, but as a model for thinking about organizing the many actions and activities that occur each day to provide context.

Heinrich’s Pyramid, developed by Herbert William Heinrich in the 1930s, has long been a subject of debate and criticism in the field of workplace safety. Some argue that Heinrich oversimplifies the causes of serious incidents, and even distracts focus from other programs or methods to identify hazards that lead to serious incidents. Interesting side bar: in our research of incidents, close calls and observations submitted across our systems, we discovered that the relationship across those occurrences was surprisingly close to what Heinrich projected. I am not suggesting that this makes Heinrich useful as a predictive tool – correlation is not causation. But I do think that robust programs that allow employees to report localized concerns is a valuable tool for understanding the broader context of an organization’s operating environment and does provide a powerful mechanism for harnessing the combined experience of your workforce to support continual improvement initiatives.

There is a lot of powerful research being conducted in the safety industry, and the fact that even dangerous jobs have lower mortality rates than ever is a testament to the enormous progress being made every year. I would only suggest that to be effective, safety management programs must include a mix of activities chosen to meet the demands of your specific environment and culture. It is unlikely that a single approach will maximize safety performance.

Implementing the most appropriate program for your environment takes judgment. Knowing you got it right takes data, including TRIR when used properly. I would love to hear your thoughts – drop us a note if you would like to learn more.

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