The Queensland state government in Australia took a blunt approach to health and safety earlier this month when a report it commissioned said that it expected 12 deaths to occur in the mines and quarries sector over the next five years unless changes were made. This is far removed from the usual news stories that industry magazines like Global Cement and others cover. Typically, these are either plants or companies reaching Lost Time Injury (LTI) milestones or sad (but thankfully rare) reports of death.
The forecast in Queensland was based on a review of fatalities in the sector that the state commissioned from Sean Brady, Department of Natural Resource, Mines and Energy, looking at the years 2000 to 2019. Year-by-year the figures were significantly lower than those occurring in the 1900 to 2000 period but didn’t appear to have any discernable pattern. However, when presented as a 12-month rolling sum of fatalities, a two to three year cycle seemed to occur. Brady then went on to look at how the fatalities happened, how the industry behaved and reacted and what could be done to improve the situation. His recommendations included looking more deeply at the causes of seemingly unrelated accidents and then changing overall organisational behaviour and insight through methods such as adopting principles of High Reliability Organisational theory, simplifying the reporting system and changing the standard safety indicators like LTI.
That last point is interesting given the prevalence of LTI indicators on corporate sustainability reports in the cement industry. The point that Brady cites here is that LTI can become a measure of how well injuries are managed, not how safely an organisation is performing. For example, the definition of what an injury is can be manipulated, leading to distortion, as can workers being brought back to work before they recover or into lighter duties. Instead he recommends that ‘serious accidents’ be used in place of LTI. These are defined as incidents that result in a fatality or incidents where an individual requires admission to hospital for treatment of an injury. The preference here is based on so-called ‘serious accidents’ being unambiguous and transparent because they are defined by a third-party medical practitioner.
Wider critiques of health and safety measurements have identified under-reporting of incidents arising from safety incentive programmes, safety culture, employee perceptions of reporting and workplace bullying. This isn’t to say that the LTI measure is not fit for purpose. It has undoubtedly led to higher safety conditions around the world, with reduced injury and mortality from working conditions, and it allows for comparisons between organisations. Yet, any health and safety metric or indicator could be liable to bias or manipulation either unconsciously or consciously. Serious accidents, for example, could be potentially undermined by an organisation having its own medical centre and would also suffer from different health care systems in different locations. Throw in different legislative frameworks around the world and comparing countries can also start to become confusing.
This tension between data and real-life safety is acknowledged by the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) in its sustainability guidance from late 2018. It distinguishes between so-called ‘lagging’ indicators, like LTI and fatalities, which show the effectiveness of a safety programme after the fact and the importance of continual safety improvement plans that aim to prevent adverse events before they happen. It is easy to become lost in a dust storm of facts and figures on health and safety but, as the Queensland authorities and the GCCA agree, measuring health and safety is a means to an end. The aim is zero harm to everyone involved.