How do OHS leaders use health and safety benchmarking?

In brief

  • Workplace health and safety leaders use benchmarking reports on health and safety performance to help inform decision-making and improve occupational health and safety performance.

Published: July 2019

Why was this study done?

Benchmarking reports provide standardized information regarding an organization’s occupational health and safety (OHS) policies and practices and allow organizations to compare their OHS performance with that of other, often similar, organizations. However, little is known about the extent to which benchmarking reports are applied in the workplace. This study aimed to understand how OHS leaders use benchmarking data on OHS performance in making health and safety decisions.

How was the study done?

In 2011-2013, almost 2,000 Ontario organizations in eight sectors (education, electrical and utilities, health care, construction, manufacturing, pulp and paper, service, and transportation) took part in an Institute for Work & Health project testing the validity and reliability of OHS leading indicators. At each organization, the person most knowledgeable about OHS practices completed an online questionnaire that covered a range of organizational policies and practices, including active safety leadership, worker involvement in safety, safety policies, training, safety communication and feedback, and people-oriented culture.

Participants’ scores were used to create benchmarks, and these scores were weighted to ensure the resulting benchmarks were representative of their respective sectors in Ontario. Participants received benchmarking reports indicating how their scores compared with those of other organizations in the same sector; they also received links to resources to help address the problem areas identified.

From among the original respondents, researchers recruited 30 who were responsible for OHS decision-making in their organization (e.g. senior managers, OHS leaders, joint health and safety committee leaders) to take part in a phone interview about their use of the benchmarking reports. The interviews took place between November 2014 and May 2015. The researchers asked open-ended questions about the relevance of the benchmarking information, other types of information they needed to make OHS decisions, and their preferred channels for receiving that information. Those who said they did not use the benchmarking reports were asked about other information they used to make OHS decisions.

What did the researchers find?

Three key themes surrounding the OHS benchmarking reports were identified:

(1) Value and use of benchmarking reports. Participants said the reports contained information relevant to their work and their organization. They found that the ability to compare their scores to those of other organizations in the same sector helped them understand how their organization was performing; it also helped to identify, and increase awareness of, areas that needed improvement. Some participants felt that the reports matched their assumptions about their OHS performance, which helped to reinforce current organizational practices or justify OHS decisions already made. Some used the reports as a learning tool to help convince leadership to identify new priorities, develop action plans and to re-examine existing processes to optimize OHS outcomes. Still others used the report to institute changes, such as purchasing new equipment, allocating more resources to supervisor training, or improving injury or lost-time monitoring practices.

Participants also identified some challenges in acting on the reports. These included not knowing how to improve the areas of need and being constrained by time and resources. There were also some concerns about the limitations of using only one informant for each organization to complete the original questionnaire, the validity of comparing scores with organizations that differ in size, and the lag between when the OHS practices were measured and when the report was received.

(2) Knowledge sharing. Most participants shared the reports within their organization, using the reports to enable discussions with leadership and members of health and safety committees. In the few instances that the report was not shared, the reasons for not doing so included not wanting to present a message that the organization was not performing well in health and safety, not wanting to alienate practice leaders, not having the time or resources to give attention to the report and not finding new information in the report.

(3) Other types of information used for OHS decision-making. The benchmarking reports were one of the information tools used to help make health and safety decisions. Other sources of information included health and safety association’s safety groups, Ministry of Labour resources, audits, and information boards and newsletters. Participants highlighted a need to identify gaps in current OHS policies and practices and wanted a way to receive information on new legislative policies or updates, to understand policies and practices of high performers, and to get best-practice information through open databases and access to experts.

What are the implications of the study?

The benchmarking reports provided practical information that helped OHS leaders make sense of their performance in specific areas of health and safety. The reports were used to start conversations with others in the organization to help in decision-making and improving OHS performance.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This study benefited from speaking directly to organizational leaders and using standardized evidence-based reports. This allowed specific questions to be asked and participants to report concrete examples about how knowledge related to OHS was used.

This study was limited by the time delay between when participants received the benchmarking reports and when they were interviewed about their use of the reports, which may have made it more challenging for participants to remember how they used the reports.