Measuring Your Health & Safety Management System – safety perception surveys

By Dennis Ryan, CRSP

If you don’t know what road you are taking, any road will take you there.

Even Christopher Columbus plotted a course before he set out to sea. Fortunate for us in America, he didn’t reach his intended destination. His failure to reach Asia can be attributed to the limitations of the contemporary navigational knowledge. Like Chris, many companies know where they want to end up in terms of health and safety, however they, too, don’t always reach their intended destination due to the limitations of their measurement instruments.

To date, no single measuring stick is available that will provide an accurate system map on how to achieve safety excellence. Alternatively, management and health and safety professionals grasp at whatever method of measurement they can, in the hopes of piecing the map together. Such an approach can be dangerous, however, without a clear understanding of the benefits and limitations of each method of measurement. Recognizing this fact is the key to navigating these dangerous waters – or it can lead to a great deal of wasted effort and erroneous direction.  In this article we will touch on methods companies currently use to measure health and safety management systems.  Our focus however, will be on a little used forward looking approach called safety perception surveys.

Statistics As Indicators
Accident statistics are a popular measure used by organizations to benchmark their company and departments against others in the industry. Beware. There are many pitfalls lying in wait for companies that focus on these “trailing indicators.” Many a corporate CEO who once basked in the glory and celebration of low accident frequencies one year has been embarrassed by a high frequency the next. Fluctuations in accident statistics can be very difficult to explain from one year to the next. As an internal measure, statistics can be misleading indicators of supervisory efforts, especially if his/her group has had the misfortune of experiencing accidents that are simply unexplainable. Who knows why the moose decided to cross the road when employee Bill happened by? Who knows why that moose selected Bill’s vehicle to complete its kamikaze mission?

Measuring a supervisor by accident statistics versus measurable supervisory safety effort is a mistake made by many companies. While effective in identifying incident trends, statistics are not a good measure of the proactive efforts of supervisors and managers. Accident statistics are considered trailing indicators because they provide insight into what has occurred in the past.

The Limitations of Safety Management System Audits
Safety management system audits are another method of measurement whose intent is to reveal system strengths and weaknesses that are known to prevent or cause incidents. However, there are limitations to what audits can accurately determine.
  • The audit process generally represents only a small sampling of the corporate population over a very short period of time.
  • Effectiveness is limited by the auditor’s knowledge and design of the audit instrument.
  • Selecting a competent auditor is a key factor – an auditor certificate can be obtained in as little as three days of training.
  • The benefits found in the audit report findings and recommendations are often directly proportional to the auditor’s knowledge and skill.
  • Selection of the audit instruments is critical, as some are distinctly better than others. Many audit instruments focus on the review of the elements of a program, such as inspections, emergency procedures, etc. Other instruments emphasize the health and safety management system to determine whether the elements are integrated with the corporate continuous improvement system.
  • Audit scores can also be misleading. A score of 80% in one aspect of safety, such as emergency preparedness, can be misinterpreted to mean all is well. Eighty percent while admirable at first glance, leaves 20% deficient. Applied to an employee population of 500 of which 20% is unable to respond to a specific emergency, this leaves 100 employees at risk. Or does it? If the employee interview sample size is 10%, can we really say how effective the corporate program is where 90% of the employees have not been interviewed? In the absence of an audit with more of a system focus, there is very little certainty that the 80% achieved in one element today will be any better next time.
  • Few audit instruments have a system focus and therefore fail to answer the question “why” deficiencies exist and how well the system is functioning.
Safety Perception Surveys
Another method of measuring safety performance, which has been gaining increasing popularity, is the safety perception survey. While it is a method that has been around

Progressive companies are turning to safety perception surveys as another method of measurement to complement and enhance other methods being used now or in the in the past. Designed and administered properly, the perception survey can help provide insight into the “what” and “why” questions about deficiencies in the health and safety management system. They can offer a company more information and provide more opportunities for improvement.

In contrast to other commonly used systems of measurement, safety perception surveys can be designed to provide a measure of the “organizational health and safety culture”. The culture of the organization plays a key role in why employees behave the way they do. For example, why do employees continue to lift heavy objects and sustain injury after the company has gone to great expense to provide training and/or purchase preventive mechanical aids? Studies suggest that most disabling accidents are the direct result of employee behaviour. The results of a perception survey can reveal those factors that influence employee behaviour such as peer pressure, production pressures, group norms, management commitment, trust and credibility.

Companies are turning to perception surveys to uncover their weaknesses because they recognize that corporate commitment to health and safety is not measured by the mere existence of well-crafted policies posted conspicuously throughout the worksites.

All employees must demonstrate commitment, and most important, all employees must perceive management’s commitment to be genuine. Perception is reality. Employee behaviour is influenced by what they perceive to be true. If they truly believe management places production ahead of safety, their day-to-day decisions on how they work, will be primarily based on achieving high production perhaps at the expense of safety.

Leading companies strive to achieve alignment between management and employees in terms of their shared beliefs, values, norms, attitudes, trust, credibility, commitment, leadership, rewards, etc. All of these factors shape employee perceptions of the company, management, supervisors and peers and have a significant influence on how they will behave on the job not only with respect to safety, but also with respect to productivity and quality. It is the culture that dictates how employees will conduct their work when the boss is not around. In their quest for safety excellence, perception surveys can reveal invaluable information that other systems of measurement do not.

In a future issue of “Contact”, we’ll publish Dennis Ryan’s article about the importance of a healthy organizational environment in which to foster positive health and safety initiatives.

Dennis Ryan, CRSP, is President of Compass Health and Safety, a consulting company specializing in Management System OH&S audits, employee perception surveys and management safety training. He also instructs part-time in the University of Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Certificate program.

Dennis can be reached at