Professor Dr Andrew Sharman challenges the way we’ve been looking at safety performance and offers an alternative approach to driving significant and sustainable safety improvement. 

A common mantra is, “Good safety is good business” – but how do we quantify the value that good safety performance brings? A common method is to measure the number of accidents that occur. 

According to research by the International Labour Organization and the US National Safety Council, each Lost Time Injury (LTI) costs somewhere between US$27 000 and US$43 000 (around R437 000 to R695 000) to the organisation. 

So, if we simply take the number of accidents that have occurred this year, compare that to last year’s numbers, and then multiply the difference by the financial statistic of your choice we have something tangible to offer up … 

Thirty fewer LTIs this year means we’ve saved almost US$1,3 million. 

Fabulous! Well done! 

Wait, really? 

Does past performance improvement come with a guarantee for future success? Of course not! The fact that an organisation has not had any accidents for X amount of days / weeks / months / years does not mean it is immune to their occurring today, tomorrow or ever again. 

A while ago your organisation may have enjoyed a period where you made great progress in reducing the number of accidents, and whilst you may have had some tough periods where there were a few “spikes” in the number of accidents occurring, overall, when you average it out, the curve on your LTI chart continues on a downward trajectory, right? But right now, you’re noticing that the curve seems to be flattening out. You’ve got an asymptotic curve. 

The word asymptote is derived from the Greek asumptotos, which means “not falling together”. In simple terms, the line of the asymptotic curve is getting close to the target (in your case this may be zero accidents) but not quite converging with it. This means things are slowing down. But you know this already. 

When you began your efforts in risk reduction you saw huge leaps forward in reducing accident numbers. Then, over time, those sorts of reductions have been harder and harder to achieve; and now you tell yourself and your stakeholders that all the “quick wins” have been taken, so naturally it’s harder to gain further improvement. 

But, actually, what’s happening here is that things are stopping to work. The effectiveness of your approach is reducing. 

Absence ≠ Existence 

All too often we measure our success in safety by the absence of stuff. The fewer negative events that occur, the better. Year after year organisations set the same target of “zero accidents”. But this is crazy! Setting objectives for what we don’t want to create pulls us away from managing the things that can actually create something positive. 

Rather than measure what we value, we fall into the trap of valuing what we measure. We track accident numbers and offer the latest reduction as valid indicators of performance, but where else would it be permissible to measure the negative as proof of something positive? 

I would bet that your organisation doesn’t measure customer satisfaction by the fact that no-one has called to tell you that they don’t like your product. We must measure what we do, not what we don’t do. We must measure what we do to create safety. 

Following the curve 

“But those charts showing LTI rates are a core element in our monthly safety reports to the board!” I can hear you cry. Yes, I understand, though are they adding any real value? I suggest that they don’t. But your leaders love them, because it allows them to look good – and feel good. 

The charts build confidence that everything is moving in the right direction. How many times have you presented your LTI chart at the board meeting and received sincere nods of approval and direction to “keep on doing what you’re doing”? Why does this happen? 

Well, Apollo Robbins, dubbed the “Gentleman Thief”, asserts that this is because as humans we have an inbuilt natural resistance towards straight edges. Robbins reveals that the technique at the heart of many of his sleight-of-hand tricks is the way he moves his body. At risk of incurring the wrath of the Magic Circle he explains that people’s eyes are more easily misdirected to follow a curve than a straight line. 

So, despite the logic that a steeply reducing straight line might be a more direct route to accident reduction, our audience is predisposed to appreciating that curve! 

So, you leave the boardroom scratching your head. You have a robust management system in place, good risk assessments, thorough accident investigations, everyone attends safety training. “Okay”, you think, “we’ll push a bit harder.” But asking people to “work more safely”, or to “try harder” just won’t work. Doing more of the same thing will not lead to something different. 

Despite the early wisdom of guys like Heinrich and Bird, there are literally stacks of research now that confirms there is limited predictive capability to be gained from data measuring the number of LTIs. Low numbers of LTIs do not mean that no fatal accidents will occur. 

Safety performance needs to be measured against specific safety objectives, not the number of accidents that have occurred, not least because the absence of accidents does not necessarily mean the existence of safety (it could reflect under-reporting, misclassification, and other insidious factors). 

If we are to move closer to our vision of a workplace that is free from injury, we need to focus on creating safety rather than reducing the numbers. Sustaining fewer accidents is an outcome of what we do. 

No matter where you are on the asymptotic curve, you can have a positive influence on safety and reduce the number of accidents in your workplace, right now, by changing your perspective and encouraging others to do the same. Make an effort to shift from measuring the negative – accident frequency rates (or “lack of safety”) – towards measuring the positive (a safe workplace). 

Cost benefit analysis

The potential benefits are huge. Beyond the ultimate importance of saving lives and ensuring people go home from work without harm, there’s a potentially significant benefit to the business’ bottom line too. 

The International Labour Organization reckons that the annual global cost of work-related injuries and deaths totals around US$3 trillion – that’s at least 4% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). 

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work says that it’s at least EUR 476 billion every year in Europe alone. Over in America, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration calculates that the 23 000 on-the-job injuries that occur each day adds up to US$250 billion annually. And the World Monetary Fund reports that this annual cost to US business of workplace injuries is greater than the GDP of 91 countries. 

The organisation for which I serve as President, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, reports that benefits of a safer workplace include a happier and healthier workforce, lower staff turnover, improved productivity and a better corporate reputation. But there’s more than that: The National Safety Council and Centers for Disease Control believe that for every dollar spent on improving workplace safety, the return-on-investment is between four and six times. 

So good safety really is good business.

The real risk: Dehumanising safety

Whilst a target of “zero accidents” has been popular with organisations over the last decade, this binary target is actually not driving sustainable performance improvement – as we’ve seen in landmark cases such as Deepwater Horizon, DuPont’s La Porte plant, in Texas, and more. 

Not only is the way we measure performance in safety blocking us from achieving those bottom-line benefits we discussed earlier, but it’s also not helping the overall human costs. 

A myopic focus on injury rates serves also to dehumanise what we are trying to do, turning real people into numbers on charts. As I type these words, I hear the popular song from British band UB40 playing in my head:

“I am the one in ten, a number on a list.

Even though I don’t exist.

Nobody knows me, even though I’m always there, 

A statistical reminder

Of a world that doesn’t care.” 

We must look deeper and work smarter. Last year 2,78 million people died due to work accidents or work-related ill-health. No doubt that this is an unacceptable number, but it’s also hard to get our heads around, so let’s break it down. 

It’s 7 616 people dead every day. It’s 317 every hour. A mere 10 seconds, and another person dead. Another person just like you. A husband, wife, partner, mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, colleague. Yet organisations rarely discuss safety in this way – it’s usually only ever about accident frequencies and lost time injury rates. Real people suddenly fade out to become mere numbers. 

Small steps, big results 

The power of marginal gains offers a way to frame the challenge in a more practical and sustainable way. And the idea of marginal gains (or “incremental change”) is a popular way to drive sustained improvements in other domains such as the world of sport. 

Perhaps best articulated by the UK Olympic team cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of, that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” 

Brailsford continues: “There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places. They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.” 

This approach earned the British team astonishing successes in 2008 and 2012, and the concept grew in popularity, with many other high-performance teams creating similar strategies – such as the Mercedes-Benz Formula One team, where everyone has the shared objective of reducing the car’s lap time by one-tenth of a second. 

As a result, they’ve become one of the most successful teams in recent Formula One history, having achieved consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships from 2014 to 2019. 

So, let’s apply the idea of marginal gains to workplace safety. A 1% improvement in workplace safety globally would result in 28 000 lives saved every year. 

Think about this concept at the level of your own organisation: instead of setting a target to eliminate all accidents straight to zero, what would a 1% positive change mean? How might you find ways to create safety each day so that each and every day things get “a little bit better”? 

The potential results are exciting: compounding the improvement of 1% each day means that over twelve
months you’ll have an improvement of 3 800% – or, in simple terms, you’ll be 40 times better off than where you are
right now! 

Moving forward

It’s time for us to make a mindset shift to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Start by looking at the small positive contributions being made to improve safety on a daily basis: team talks; sharing learnings from accidents; Lean Six Sigma projects; employee engagement; safety conversations; impactful training; workforce suggestions – there will be plenty to choose from. Consider how you can measure the impact of these. 

Think about useful leading indicators that can efficiently measure your input activities, that help you to be able to recognise and reward great efforts, to identify best practices, and to leverage improvements. Remember that achieving high levels of safety performance needs means and methods, not just the commitment and will.  

Small steps in the right direction, one step at a time, 1% at a time, all add up. 

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman (left) is chief executive and Darren Sutton is senior partner at RMS, consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. Find out more at RMS’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in an organisation. E-mail us at: and mention this article to find out more and receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

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