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When safety hurts

“Life’s just not fair sometimes” is the justification that I’ve been weaving more frequently into the message with my kids when they don’t get the result they want.  I guess I’m preparing them for the working world so they develop some resilience to disappointment, frustration, even failure.  Time for me to listen to my own wisdom.

My frustration involves the safety evaluation and prequalification process used in many industries to vet contractors and service providers.  The vetting process consists chiefly of the submission of safety performance information and program documents that are then reviewed to ensure that a set of requirements are met.

Most often a third-party vetting provider works on behalf of a company (let’s say, one of your clients) to make sure the service provider (let’s say, your company) does not present too great of a contracting risk.  Safety vetting is accomplished quite easily by objectively reviewing lagging performance metrics and the verbiage in your health and safety program documents.  That’s where the pain starts.

From their point of view reviewing lagging safety performance metrics provided by contractors, such as incident rate (IR), severity rate (DART), or experience modification rate (EMR), allows for objective decisions to be made and streamlines the annual processing of hundreds of service providers.  Numbers don’t lie, are clean, and easy to sort.  Likewise, the review of a satisfactory safety program equals well-executed safety procedures and a well-established safety culture. Right?

Do statistics paint the whole safety picture?

Well, the devil is always in the details and no more so than with safety statistics.  I can appreciate that when you’re having to evaluate hundreds of contractors or vendors, the process begs for efficiency.  However, what is gained by efficiency is lost by not painting a true picture of risk.  Efficiency is obtained by simply establishing an acceptable safety score that is, apparently, telling of the likelihood of injury.

Unfortunately, having acceptable numbers and a well-written safety program don’t tell the complete story.  Many lagging indicator statistics are computed based on the number of labor hours recorded in a calendar year and, therefore, smaller companies are impacted to a much greater degree when a single incident occurs.

when safety hurts, Dan HannanBy placing an increased value on lagging performance metrics, and, consequently, denying, “low-scoring” contractors the ability to earn their work, they are, in fact, encouraging the fudging of the same safety data that they place such a high amount of value in.  Safety “hurts” when a supplier/contractor is not able to explain the circumstances behind the data.  Safety “hurts” when honest disclosure of safety performance denies contractors the ability to earn revenue and in fact threatens their sustainability.

Unfortunately, an injury is an injury for the purposes of accounting.  For example, a small infected cut requiring antibiotics and an amputated finger both equal “one incident” on a recordable incident log.  A case of poison ivy requiring a steroid shot and the loss of an eye are each recorded as “one incident” on an incident log.   The magnitude of these injuries, and the cause or manner in which they were sustained, are most often not looked at as part of the third-party vetting process—it’s just not fair is it?

Enough whining.

There’s an adage that says: “You can sleep with a lot of people but you still have to sleep with yourself.” Fudging data is unethical and honest service providers will not do it.  We will be true to ourselves and double down on our efforts to prevent injury by engaging our workforce with solid safety messages, challenging our leaders to be actively involved, and requiring accountability at all levels within the organization.

At times our numbers might not look good, and can even cause us pain. But we must stay true to our core principles. Let’s all take the high road in safety reporting — even though it may hurt at times.

Read more from Dan Hannan:

Bad Boys, Bad Boys—Project Security Challenges

Bottoms-up: Realizing You Need Safety When it’s Too Late

“I Can’t Fix Stupid”—Zero Injury is an Impossible Goal

All is good until it’s not–When safety practices strain company culture


Dan Hannan, safety professionalAbout the Author: Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached at dhannan@merjent.com.

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