On May 12, OSHA made an announcement that will have massive implications for workplaces in the United States. The agency issued a final rule that revised its Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illnesses regulation.

The change is scheduled to take effect January 2017 and will require employers in specific industries to electronically submit all OSHA-required data, which will then be displayed for public scrutiny.

While this new legislation was created with good intentions, it has had a polarizing affect, with worker advocates, industry associations and professional organizations weighing in. For its part, OSHA believes that making injury information publicly available will help identify those companies that are at the highest risk of occupational injuries and illnesses.

While I’m pleased that OSHA is making technological advancements, I’m troubled by two critical oversights that may lead to more harm than good:

Issue 1: The metrics OSHA has chosen to make public are inadequate to inform safety policy.

I’m not the only one speaking out about this topic. OSHA’s final rule is being challenged by a number of influential leaders involved in occupational safety and health who believe that the regulation will not achieve the desired impact.

Michael Belcher, past-president of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), has spoken out against OSHA’s final rule and claimed that it is a “step backward for safety professionals.” Belcher argues that by making specific workplace injury and illness data public, OSHA is encouraging the use of ineffective, lagging indicators as key performance metrics, which many companies will use to benchmark their own safety performance.

To do this would be to perpetuate a negative trend, according to many EHS professionals. Many companies have recognized this flawed approach for years and have expended considerable effort to stop using lagging indicator metrics as benchmarks for safety performance, given clear evidence of their ineffectiveness.  

They’re right!  Not only is basing a safety program on lagging indicators ineffective, it also is dangerous and can result in fatal incidents. Consider the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Leading up to the day of the explosion, Transocean had been celebrated for its outstanding safety record and seven straight years without a lost-time incident, all of which was based on lagging –not leading – indicators. The company even won an award from the Minerals Management Services (MMS) in 2008 in recognition of its safety record and BP had been a finalist for the MMS national safety award for two consecutive years leading up to the explosion. OSHA’s methodologies would rank them at the top of the list.

However, the tragic explosion on April 20, 2010 demonstrated that, in fact, the risk to employees was at peak levels. The positive lagging metrics hid the fact that the underlying risk had yet to manifest itself in incidents, even though years of ineffective analysis brought the rig to a boiling point. Basing the safety program on lagging metrics gave Transocean and BP a false sense of security.

Had they actively engaged employees in safety activities, they could have collected leading metrics, the most proactive and activity-based key performance indicators (KPIs). Instead, we witnessed the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, which killed 11 people, cost nearly $54 billion dollars and eroded 55 percent of shareholder value.

As the above example demonstrates, lagging indicators only provide insight into past performance and cannot show how a safety program currently is performing. OSHA’s implication that companies with poor lagging indicator metrics are riskier is, in many cases, false. At a macro level, higher risk will certainly manifest itself in a higher frequency of incidents, but at a micro level, a company’s position on the public database will not necessarily reflect its level of safety risk. 

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves a question: What is risk? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines risk as: “the possibility that something bad or unpleasant (such as an injury or loss) will happen.” Risk is forward looking, and measuring it is complicated and cannot easily be simplified to a single metric, especially those that show only past, not current, performance. 

Using a single lagging indicator inherently is dangerous as it has high potential to leave workers exposed to unidentified or unmanaged hazards that could result in an incident. Should OSHA seek to actually reduce risk, it needs to rethink the metrics it is making public, how it defines risk and how it measures the risk level of an organization.

Perhaps considering a way of collecting and sharing leading indicators would be more effective. The only way to proactively reduce risk is to involve employees in safety initiatives and first gain insight into their activities. Only then can you take preventative steps to proactively reduce risk.

Consider the following example of two companies: Company A reported having five minor recordable workplace incidents in 2015, leading to an OSHA incident rate of 3.3, while Company B reported zero incidents in 2015. Although Company A did experience incidents, it also has a proactive risk prevention program. Its safety director recently introduced a new data collection system, which improved visibility and communication between the frontline workers and the office. The new systems are expected to improve worker participation and informed decisions by management.

Instead of tracking only incidence rates, the safety director also looks at the company’s overall training hours, number of hazards identified and number of safety meetings attended by non-safety personnel. Although there were more minor incidents than expected last year, Company A has the proactive measures to identify potential hazards or risks before they result in an incident.

Company B also has a designated safety director but this person’s stated goal is to not be considered an unsafe company by OSHA standards.  As long as the safety director complies with OSHA and its incident rate doesn’t increase dramatically, the year will be considered a success. The safety director offers incentives when zero workplace incidents are reported and as a result, minor workplace incidents – some that would otherwise be recordable – rarely are reported.

If one was to only consider the illness and injury data collected by OSHA, Company B would appear to be a safer and better company to work for than Company A.  But after examining the situation, ask yourself: Where would you rather work?

Issue 2: OSHA’s final rule requires electronic submission, yet most companies are not technologically equipped to do so.

The second problem with the OSHA ruling is that according to a recent EHS Daily Advisor report, 79 percent of companies currently report on safety performance without the use of safety software. In other words, OSHA is implementing a policy without supporting the build-out of an infrastructure to support it.

There are two main reasons why OSHA wants to move to electronic data submission: first, to improve data accuracy and timeliness and second, to increase transparency with the hope that prospective employees, customers and shareholders will refer to the OSHA list before doing business with a company. This is an opportunity for OSHA to be forward-looking, allocating resources to increase adoption of internal data management technology so that the transmission of information to the agency becomes seamless. Seamless integration significantly will increase program acceptance, leading to improved outcomes. 

In the 160-page final rule document, internal data management software is never discussed as a viable alternative or even first step. If it had been discussed, the benefits clearly could be shown:

  • Increased worker participation levels.
  • More accurate data.
  • More timely data.
  • Seamless and automatic sharing of information with OSHA and other agencies.

Encouraging companies to adopt data management software would put OSHA light years ahead of its current state. Case in point, OSHA expects each submission to be reviewed before manually removing any personal information. However, modern technology can prevent that information from being included in the first place.

Although OSHA anticipates using this regulation to improve workplace safety, there are major issues with the public display of ineffective metrics and the agency’s refusal to engage in a conversation about supporting internal safety technology initiatives. If workplace safety is to be improved, there must be a broader conversation about technology and more emphasis placed on the measurement of leading indicators. Until that time, industry leaders will complain, OSHA will defend itself and companies will continue to suffer from more bureaucracy. 

About the Author: Josh LeBrun is the president and COO of eCompliance Safety Software. He is responsible for the company’s strategic direction and day-to-day operations including finance, legal and administration. eCompliance, a cloud-based software company, was founded to reduce workplace incidents. Its philosophy is that all companies in at-risk industries have an undeniable opportunity to accelerate continuous improvement to not only improve safety performance but also strengthen their competitive position.