Can an eight-item questionnaire pick up on real-world differences in OHS practice?

Study of IWH-OPM finds consistent differences in how high and medium scorers approach health and safety

Published: February 14, 2020

Occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals often talk about their need for a short, concise leading indicator tool—something that can quickly assess the adequacy of workplace health and safety practices without requiring too much time and involving too many people.

The Institute for Work & Health Organizational Performance Metric (IWH-OPM) is designed to do this. With just eight items that can be scored by a person knowledgeable about an organization’s health and safety policies and practices, this instrument is intended to give a snapshot of the adequacy of those policies and practices and identify areas that could be the focus for improvement.

So how well can a set of eight items capture something as broad and multi-faceted as an organization’s OHS policies and practices? Pretty well, it turns out, according to a new study from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

The IWH-OPM is good for getting a quick picture of the adequacy of an organization’s health and safety policies and practices, says Dr. Basak Yanar, an IWH research associate and lead author of the paper reporting on this study, which was published in January 2020 in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management (doi: 10.1108/IJWHM-09-2018-0126). In our study, higher IWH-OPM scores were found to correspond with higher-performing organizations in terms of their observed OHS practices and policies.

That is, drawing on in-depth interviews, worksite observations and document analysis at five workplaces, the research team found a pattern emerge in the health and safety performances of high IWH-OPM scorers compared to medium IWH-OPM scorers, says Dr. Lynda Robson, IWH scientist and principal investigator of the study.

At high-performing organizations, OHS was done well at all levels of the organization and across all departments, whereas at medium-performing organizations, OHS performance was inconsistent within the organization, she says. As well, high performers aimed for incorporating best practices, whereas medium-performing organizations were more interested in achieving and maintaining compliance.

Eight items to assess a firm’s OHS

The IWH-OPM was developed by IWH and Ontario’s prevention system partners. Drawing on research and practical expertise, they identified eight questions—out of many potential questions—that could provide a quick assessment of an organization’s OHS performance. The tool, first tested in 2009, has been shown to have internal consistency and structural validity. It has been used by different types of stakeholders in several Canadian jurisdictions to strengthen safety performance in workplaces.

To better understand how IWH-OPM scores correspond with real-world organizational OHS policies and practices, Yanar and another researcher visited and conducted in-depth interviews at Ontario workplaces that had completed the IWH-OPM in 2012-2013. At each of the five organizations that took part—two high-scoring and three medium-scoring employers in four sectors (agriculture, community services, manufacturing and transportation)—the team spent two days interviewing on average seven workplace representatives in various roles and functions.

The team probed for similarities and differences in five dimensions: OHS leadership, OHS culture and climate, employee participation, OHS policies and practices, and OHS risk control. It found differences between high and medium scorers across all five categories. Below are detailed accounts of the patterns they found.

OHS leadership

In high-performing organizations, a commitment to health and safety was found at all levels of management. For example, OHS managers reported that executive leaders were up to date with OHS developments and major incidents, and routinely consulted with them before authorizing significant operational changes. In both high-performing organizations, a dedicated senior manager was assigned to manage health and safety. In the high-performing organization with multiple locations, each location had its own safety manager. Importantly, OHS managers were given autonomy and authority in their jobs.

In the medium-performing organizations, managers responsible for OHS may have been personally invested in OHS, but they had other responsibilities (e.g. operations, human resources) that competed for their time. As well, the commitment to safety was less consistent at the other levels of management. At one organization, executive leadership was described as disinterested and uninvolved in safety, focusing instead on traditional business matters. At another, OHS professionals sometimes felt they lacked respect from the senior leadership. Supervisors were also described as having varying levels of commitment to health and safety in these organizations.

OHS culture and climate

In high-performing organizations, safety was clearly stated as a key organizational value. Its importance was reinforced by messages from the executive leadership. Messages from management, including from executives, drove home the view that everybody is responsible for safety, that people can refuse work if it’s not safe, and that both client safety and employee safety take priority.

In medium-performing organizations, safety was also seen as important, but less consistently across the organization. In one organization, a participant said that the importance of safety depended on who you talk to and that some directors and managers were not interested in safety. Safety goals were set lower, at achieving compliance as opposed to incorporating best practices. And although tensions between safety and production were sometimes found in both high- and medium-performing organizations, only in medium-performing organizations did the team find examples of cost reduction or productivity being placed ahead of safety

The differences in safety culture and climate among organizations were also apparent in the recognition of employee safety practices. In high-performing organizations, safe practices were actively supported through verbal recognition, reward programs (e.g. safe employee of the month awards), and gifts or letters of appreciation. Verbal recognition and small rewards for safe practices were also used at the medium-performing organizations, but less frequently or uniformly.

Employee participation

At the high-performing workplaces, worker input was actively sought by managers, including feedback on operational aspects of OHS and daily safety protocols. At one of the high-performing organizations, employees were encouraged to submit work requests to address hazards and make OHS suggestions. In the other, employee meetings always began with an OHS component. Employees’ familiarity with OHS policies and practices was seen positively as contributing to ongoing improvements. Their suggestions and feedback were also welcomed.

In the medium-performing organizations, employees were also given opportunities to report concerns through channels such as meetings, joint health and safety committee (JHSC) inspections and formal reporting processes. Participation, however, was mostly limited to reporting safety concerns. Opportunities for employees to become involved with decision-making processes were fewer.

OHS policies and practices

High-performing and medium-performing organizations had different approaches to OHS policies and procedures and OHS communication and learning. In high-performing organizations, OHS policies and procedures were comprehensive, well documented and well implemented. Practices around the reporting of hazards and incidents were strong. Managers and supervisors regularly shared information about new OHS policies and practices with employees, using diverse communication channels such as mandatory safety meetings, logbooks, memos, flyers and pamphlets, phone calls and in-person chats. Employees were also able to regularly communicate their needs and concerns through hazard sheets, safety meetings, emails and phone calls.

For new OHS information, high-performing organizations turned to external sources such as provincial Safety Groups (networks of organizations that plan and implement improvements in their OHS management), the labour ministry, health and safety associations and OHS consultants. Their OHS knowledge management methods included performance measurement, incident analysis and corrective/preventive action, sharing of best practices among different locations, sharing of new information in management meetings and annual safety meetings. High-performing organizations were also the only ones in the study that underwent formal OHS management audits; these helped identify shortcomings in OHS management and risk controls—deficiencies that were then addressed within the following year.

At medium-performing organizations, policies and procedures were aimed more at meeting legislative requirements and reacting to incidents, rather than implementing best practices. In medium-performing organizations, communication channels were more limited and top-down. Means of OHS communication included OHS boards and newsletters, inserts sent out in employees’ bi-weekly pay envelopes, emails and staff meetings. In one medium-performing organization, departments were described as “siloed” and inter-departmental communication was rare.

Risk control

The degree to which risk controls were implemented varied between high- and medium-performing organizations. While all organizations carried out the monthly JHSC inspections required by legislation, as well as other routine equipment inspections, the high-performing organizations had additional means to detect and assess hazards proactively. They had separate mechanisms for reporting hazards and near misses, and for tracking suggestions for improvements. High performers investigated even minor incidents. They conducted formal risk assessments and analyzed hazard reports to identify priorities. Although personal protective equipment (PPE) was available to employees in all organizations, only in high-performing organizations was PPE use strongly enforced.

Risk control measures at medium-performing organizations, in contrast, were more focused on basic compliance with legislation. The use of PPE was left to the discretion of departmental supervisors and individuals, and not strictly enforced. Overall, the high-performing organizations were more proactive and “engineered out” risk as much as possible, while the medium-performing organizations adopted a more reactive approach that aimed at regulatory compliance.

Low performers absent from study

Not represented in this study were workplaces that scored low on the IWH-OPM, Yanar and Robson note. Low performers were already scarce in the overall sample of Ontario workplaces that had taken the IWH-OPM in 2012-2013. Among the 250 in this overall sample that also indicated they would be interested in taking part in subsequent research, only nine scored low. We took considerable effort to recruit low-performing organizations, but our efforts were unsuccessful, says Yanar.

The IWH case study analysis can help government prevention programs and workplaces understand what IWH-OPM scores represent in terms of real-world OHS practices, policies and cultures in the workplace. Based on this analysis, OHS professionals both inside and outside an organization can use the IWH-OPM to quickly get an overall picture of how well an organization’s OHS programs and policies are working and what type of action needs to be taken to prevent injuries and illness, says Yanar.

For example, Yanar continues, if an organization scores high on the IWH-OPM (i.e. close to the maximum score), then high OHS capacity and commitment could be assumed.

In this case, sophisticated conversations about sustaining an OHS culture would likely be appropriate, she says. If an organization gets a medium-level score (i.e. about three-quarters of the maximum), then an analysis of gaps and opportunities would likely be appropriate.