Metrics Matter, But People Matter More

Workers’ Memorial Day is an opportunity to expand thinking.

John Surma is chairman of the National Safety Council Board of Directors and a former President and CEO of U.S. Steel Corporation.

​In my career with U.S. Steel, I saw almost every workplace hazard possible, with incidents ranging from minor bruises to a few tragic fatalities. There were a lot of strains and sprains, but the fatalities were what haunted me, and it's the people we lost who we want to remember on April 28, Workers' Memorial Day.

There has been great progress in making workplaces safer since the National Safety Council was created 103 year ago. We can reduce and eliminate fatalities if we stop reacting to what happened and start considering what could have happened.

I came to this realization after reading a February article written by Glenn Murray for Safety+Health magazine. Murray, an executive at ExxonMobil, suggested that while some traditional safety metrics have been improving in recent years, the measurements for serious or potentially serious incidents have not been demonstrating the same rate of progress.

This suggests that while the safety community has been effective at reducing such less severe incidents as slips, trips and falls, preventing potentially life-threatening occurrences has been more challenging. Murray proposed – and I agree – that we can make workplaces safer if we pay more attention to the potential consequences of workplace incidents.

For instance, if an employee survives a fall with just a sprained ankle, the response shouldn't only be to require employees to wear boots that protect their ankles. We should investigate such incidents based not on the actual end results but on what could have happened and why it happened; we want to prevent not the sprained ankle but the fall itself and the potentially catastrophic results. By focusing more on the incident and less on the aftereffect, we can be better positioned to prevent the next incident and its potentially far more serious outcome.

Tracking safety is important, and the National Safety Council offers guidance in safety management systems. A successful Journey to Safety Excellence means taking the time to thoughtfully assess your organization's approach to safety. I hope companies will take an opportunity on April 28 to look closely at their reporting practices and think about how amending their administrative procedures can translate into better protection for their employees.

Workers' Memorial Day, after all, wasn't created to remember those who lost a day's work to a strained back; it was created to remember those who lost their lives while working. Targeting – and ultimately eliminating – incidents with potentially fatal results is an admirable way to mark the holiday.

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