Not so long ago, preparing for the role of Safety Professional meant taking an OSHA 30 class plus industry-specific hazard trainings for your company. Great safety professionals were often workers with years of practical experience sharpened by technical training on identifying hazards and techniques for mitigating them. To everyone’s credit, this worked very well as fatalities dropped from about 14,000/year in 1970 to only 4,000/year while the workforce has nearly doubled. Injury incident rates dropped from over 11% to 3.4% in the same period – enormous progress by any standard in the 50 years since OSHA was formed.
As usually happens with process improvement, early gains can be challenging because of cultural resistance and a learning curve, but there is low-hanging fruit to be picked that yields positive results. Everyone gets smarter, visible results encourage broader support and more effective processes, which in turn produces better results. Eventually that low hanging fruit is gone and further improvements require a more sophisticated approach.
We know from many other industries and processes that the key to the next round of improvement is in systems that provide faster access to information (what just happened?) and useful data (why did it happen and are there clues to where it might happen next?).
Using data is not a new idea – we have been doing that for a long time:
- Historical practice: When incidents occurred, a paper form would (hopefully) be completed and make its way to the safety professional. Or the safety professional would get a call and it was their responsibility to saddle up, go to the scene and collect the information on the paper form. In either case that incident report became the source document for aggregating incident information to report to management, to report to the Worker’s Comp carrier, and to report to the government (OSHA, MSHA, or your state program). Pro-active safety professionals would accumulate results in Excel spreadsheets to try to see a “big picture”, but there are limitations here for all but the most proficient spreadsheet users. Even harder was collecting near-miss data and observations from the field. How many companies have that box on the wall and the chain hanging down where the pen for writing your observation used to be. And to really encourage worker use, be sure to place it right outside the site manager’s office.
- Getting better today: There are systems available today that streamline the reporting of incidents, collection of data and presentation of results. These systems save lots of administrative time and free safety professionals to actually identify and focus on activities that can make a difference to both the safety performance and, as an added bonus, the operating performance of the company. Some of these have strong mobile components that encourage broad participation by all workers – and this is a real key to what is coming soon.
- The not-so-distant future: Emerging asset management systems are including what is called “predictive maintenance” modules. The basic idea is that if systems collect and analyze enough information about your equipment, they will be able to start predicting machine failures before they occur, thus avoiding expensive down-time. This has two very important implications for safety: first, when equipment failures can be predicted and then avoided, overall worker safety is enhanced – everyone is better off if a plant doesn’t blow up; second, what if the same technology could be deployed to reliably identify locations and behaviors that have a high probability of experiencing an incident if not addressed. Again, a dual win for workers and production.
We have talked about safety lagging indicators (incident rates, days lost) and leading indicators (near-miss, inspection fails) for a long time. What makes these new systems different is the ability to quickly accumulate LOTS of data and find patterns which might not be immediately obvious, then keep improving with time as the systems “learn” from actual results.
Another game-changing development is the ability to monitor almost anything remotely and receive real-time results. Imagine placing remote, Internet-connected sensors to measure noise levels, dust levels, vibration levels or even chemical concentration levels and be alerted on your mobile device when results are outside of permitted ranges. And note that when results are outside of permitted ranges for workers, there may be an operational problem to be addressed as well.
So where to start? There is a bewildering array of software products available, but there is a systematic way to approach evaluation and selection of a product that meets your current and projected needs. A process description is another article, but some top-side guidance: take time to really understand your own needs. There are many sophisticated products on the market, but be certain you really need that level of system and that you have staff comfortable working with complex systems. A simpler solution that meets 90% of your needs but will be used appropriately will deliver more value than a 100% solution that frustrates your users.
The goal of zero injuries is worth all of us committing to – the path for achieving this goal requires smart use of technology. There are plenty of ways to adopt game-changing technologies at your pace without ulcer-causing turmoil. Let us know how we can help you with your goals.