Leading indicators may pinpoint positive differences in OHS practices

The Institute for Work & Health is currently conducting a number of studies that may provide important insights on “leading indicators.” The results from these studies will support efforts to improve the way Ontario firms manage their occupational health and safety programs.

Published: February 15, 2011

Can you imagine a time when a company could pinpoint and implement tried-and-true occupational health and safety programs, policies and practices that will lead to fewer worker injuries and illnesses?

Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Scientific Director Dr. Benjamin Amick believes that, in the not-too-distant future, firms may be able to take evidence on leading indicators of work injury and illness and implement programs, policies and practices that could markedly reduce work injury rates.

Traditionally, an organization’s injury rates are used to help manage occupational health and safety (OHS) performance. This is known as a lagging indicator because the injuries have already occurred. A leading indicator is a measure of an organization’s ongoing health and safety initiatives, or of the workplace conditions leading to illness and injuries.

Our scientists are tackling several major research projects on leading indicators, hoping to glean information that could help firms achieve fewer worker injuries, improve productivity and decrease workers’ compensation costs, Amick says. The research may help firms target resources and interventions to drive down injury rates.

Understanding business objectives and OHS practices

One such project examines how occupational health and safety practices relate to firms’ business objectives. IWH Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa and several other IWH researchers have partnered with researchers from York University’s Schulich School of Business to delve into the relationship between business practices and health and safety practices. How do these priorities interact? Do they conflict? Are they complementary? If a company is only focused on the bottom line, does worker health and safety need to take a back seat?

We need to understand the nuances of this vital relationship in a firm, says Tompa. What factors both support the needs of the business and optimize worker health? We hope to find out through this study.

The partnership builds on the strengths of the two institutions. Researchers from the Schulich School of Business bring their expertise in business operation outcomes such as production goals and process. IWH researchers provide evidence-based knowledge in occupational health and safety.

The partners have completed the first phase of the research, which used a case-study approach to develop an understanding of the relationship between operations and health and safety. Ten case studies were conducted, each involving a single facility from the manufacturing, warehouse or transportation sector. At each facility, researchers:

  • conducted in-depth interviews with key staff;
  • surveyed about 30 workers to measure worker perceptions of safety;
  • collected workers’ compensation data from 2002 to 2008; and
  • toured the worksite to gather additional insights, talking informally with workers and managers while there.

Although the researchers are continuing this study on a larger scale (about 300 companies are lined up to take part in a survey this spring), Tompa notes that some preliminary findings have already surfaced. 

The initial results are very polarized, he says. In about 40 per cent of the case studies, when operational needs and health and safety objectives are managed together by one person, there is a strong trend toward doing well on both fronts. However, when companies try to manage these needs separately, there are potential trade-offs – such as getting work done over being safe. This suggests that there can be a synergy between operations and health and safety. Companies can excel in both if the two are managed jointly.

Breaking through from poor to strong OHS performance

Another research project related to leading indicators is exploring what it takes to go from being a poor health and safety performer to a top performer. IWH Associate Scientist Dr. Lynda Robson is interested in describing how large and positive changes in a firm’s occupational health outcomes occur.

When I started at IWH in the late 1990s, my colleagues and I made presentations about the research evidence associating work conditions and health, Robson says. I could see that both employer and worker representatives accepted this evidence, but they would then ask, ‘What should we do?’ As a result, workplace researchers at IWH focused more on workplace occupational health and safety interventions, but many of these were found to have small effects. Robson’s research interest is focused on firms that accomplished large and positive change.

In a current project named “Breakthrough Change in Workplace OHS Performance,” Robson and her team hope to identify critical success factors among firms that have undergone their own breakthrough change. A firm was identified as having undergone breakthrough change – or BTC – if it went from being among the highest 50 per cent (a poorer performer) in its Rate Group to being among the lowest 20 per cent (a higher performer) with respect to its workers’ compensation claim rates.

We know quite a lot about the differences between poor performing and high performing firms at a single point in time, says Robson. However, we know much less about how the organization changes from being a poor performer to a high performer.

Notes Robson, If we can learn of factors that contribute to that success and that other firms may be able to adopt, it could lead to more effective prevention of work injuries and illnesses.

In the first phase of the study, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claim information from firms with 75 or more employees was analyzed to identify firms that had changed. These claim rates were for lost-time and no-lost-time claims each year from 1998 to 2008.

The second phase involves an in-depth case study analysis of BTC firms, looking in detail at how and why their workers’ compensation claim rates improved so significantly. About five to 10 people from each firm – from executives to OHS professionals to front-line workers – are being interviewed. The case studies also include a worksite tour and a review of the organization’s health and safety documents.

Although the second phase is still underway, Robson can share some preliminary findings from brief interviews with 15 firms. We observed that the prevention system – namely contact from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, the WSIB or a health and safety association – was involved in motivating or assisting with change in several of these cases, she notes. In particular, contact from these organizations was a signal that the firm wasn’t doing well and that changes needed to be made.

Over the next several months, Robson’s team will complete four qualitative case studies to pinpoint the factors contributing to the firms’ breakthrough change.

Although we may not uncover a single magic bullet, we could find out that a certain organizational practice or other characteristic may prove to be beneficial for firms to achieve better prevention of work injuries, she says.

Studying OHS practices in 5,000 firms

Finally, another study of leading indicators is one of the largest studies of workplace injury prevention practices ever undertaken in Ontario.

The four sector-based health and safety associations (HSAs) and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers are joining forces with the Institute for Work & Health to recruit about 5,000 organizations into the study.

The “5,000 Firms Study,” as it’s informally known, is looking at how organizations’ health, safety and disability policies and practices relate to injuries and illness. The study includes every major sector in Ontario.

This is a groundbreaking project, which could potentially have huge implications for Ontario’s prevention system and beyond, says Amick, the project lead. A project of this magnitude is only possible with the strong commitment to safety and support for research across the prevention system.

After agreeing to participate, organizations will be asked to fill out a web-based survey, with questions about their safety culture, occupational health and safety management systems, joint health and safety committees, and organizational policies and practices. This survey – which is an outgrowth of the organizational indices project (see At Work, Summer 2010, as well as the project’s final report at www.iwh.on.ca/benchmarking-organizational-leading-indicators) – will help to identify leading organizational indicators.

Each firm’s responses about its management or organizational safety measures will be linked to its claim rate records – with all information being maintained in confidence by IWH. Researchers will be able to see if relationships exist between specific measures and injury or illness claim rates.

Each participating organization will receive a report showing how it compares with other organizations in its sector. Collectively, the information will create a unique knowledge base for Ontario, which can be used as a benchmark by other employers.

In the end, the goal is to have a set of accurate leading indicators that all workplaces can use to assess their health and safety performance. The leading indicators will provide an excellent opportunity to reduce workplace injury and illness using practices that are based on evidence, Amick notes. Firms and other stakeholders in OHS can take the information and develop products or services, target scarce resources and interventions, and measure performance.

Watch for more information on the findings from these three important projects in future issues of At Work.