Key performance indicators

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Gerard Zwetsloot, TNO, the Netherlands


Introduction

This paper addresses how organisations can use OSH performance indicators. This is an important way to mainstream OSH into business management. Key performance indicators (KPIs) should provide objective data on the OSH situation. It is often said that ‘what gets measured gets managed’. Without information on OSH performance, no adequate feedback on actions and policies is available. The paper gives examples of relevant OSH KPIs. The most frequently used KPIs reflect past performance rather than future performance. There is therefore an increasing interest in so-called ‘leading indicators’.


Key performance indicators for OSH

The field of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) comprises a variety of risks that need to be managed. OSH experts are often specialised in some specific risks and they should know how to assess and reduce them.

Workers and managers are often confronted with a range of OSH risks, which they are supposed to manage responsibly. To some extent, OSH performance is reflected in the findings of the risk assessment process, but risk assessments are not always complete and are performed infrequently. As a result, the risk assessment is an important but not sufficient source of data for adequate OSH management. Without OSH KPIs the question ‘How good is our OSH performance?’ is difficult to answer.

Within the European Union, organisations are obliged to manage OSH. The level of protection against OSH risks in organisations is reflected at the macro level in OSH statistics, such as those published by Eurostat [1], EU OSHA [2] and the European Foundation [3].

The official European OSH statistics are published by Eurostat [4]. For occupational safety, the focus is on serious accidents at work (incident rate of accidents with three or more days of absence) and fatal accidents at work (rate per 100,000 employees). For occupational health, the official statistics are less standardised, but usually address occupational diseases, work-related diseases and sickness absence. Most of these indicators are also useful, in one form or another, at the organisational level. However, other KPIs are particularly relevant to managing OSH risks.

When KPIs are selected or defined, the most important considerations are

  • OSH relevance,
  • management relevance, and
  • communicative value. See also.

Relevance to OSH

To be useful as a tool to manage OSH, KPIs should provide quantitative or semi-quantitative data that reflect the safety and health issues and activities in the organisation. These should comprise condensed information on existing and emerging risks, exposures, and hazards, as well as on preventive activities to (further) reduce the remaining hazards and risks.

The KPIs should be based as far as possible on objective and validated measurements; however, some OSH aspects (e.g. safety climate or worker satisfaction) are difficult to measure entirely objectively; in such cases, making use of validated surveys or questionnaires that deliver self-reported data is the best option.

Relevance to management

In principle, it is only useful to measure a performance indicator if the KPI can be used for decision-making. In other words, it is only useful when the measurement has potential consequences for adapting OSH policies, OSH plans, or existing practices. For steering purposes, the relevance of the KPIs increases when they are based on real time measurements or have a validated predictive value. A KPI that is measured every week implies that information becomes available every week whereupon action can be taken when necessary. If the measurement is only once a year, it can provide relevant information for an annual OSH plan, but it cannot have consequences for day-to-day activities and it cannot be useful in managing acute risks. The importance of the predictive value of KPIs is addressed in section 2 and communicative value is addressed in section 7.

Predictive value?

The performance indicators mostly frequently used, such as loss time incidents (LTIs) or sickness absence, reflect OSH performance in the past; these kinds of indicators are called ‘lagging’ indicators because the information by definition lags behind reality. They measure the ‘outcomes’ of the past OSH management process rather than the qualities of the present OSH management process. Lagging indicators show when a desired safety outcome has failed, or when an OSH objective has not been achieved. They essentially permit learning from mistakes [5]. Using only lagging indicators is sometimes said to be ‘as effective as driving a car when you can only see in the rear-view mirror’. For steering and management purposes, it is therefore better to have information with greater predictive value.

The alternatives for lagging indicators are leading indicators. These provide feedback on performance before an OSH problem arises so that action can be taken to prevent it. Unfortunately, there are few generally accepted and standardised OSH leading indicators. This is due to the complexity of OSH and the uniqueness of many workplaces and jobs.

In the next two sections, we give examples of lagging and leading OSH indicators that are useful in many situations.

Lagging indicators

Even though lagging indicators do not allow assessment of the OSH level, they are still frequently used in organisations. Choices can be made as to whether to express the KPIs in terms of percentages, rates, or absolute numbers. The most important OSH lagging indicators are:

  • injuries and work-related ill health in terms of LTIs, Lost Time Incident Frequency (Rate) (= number of lost-time injuries x 1,000,000 divided by total hours worked in the accounting period);
  • production days lost through sickness absence (% of total work days lost by sickness absence; this can also be specified further, e.g. for short-term sickness and long-term sickness absence);
  • incidents or near misses (including those with the potential to cause injury, ill health, or loss);
  • complaints about work that is carried out in unsafe or unhealthy conditions;
  • number of early retirements.

As shown above, there is often a strong emphasis on the negative, i.e. on measuring what went wrong. However, most people and organisations tend to prefer positive feedback. Then the focus is on what went well (what was safe and healthy) and according to planning. Examples of positive lagging indicators are:

  • the percentage of productive planned work days realised (i.e. 97% productive work days as opposed to 3% sickness absence);
  • the number of hours worked (by the total work force) without lost time injury;
  • the number of working days since the last accident;
  • employee satisfaction (survey).


Leading indicators

Leading indicators have predictive value and can therefore be used to improve OSH management in general, or to intervene in risky situations before safety or health is affected. Often they measure factors that are generally regarded as essential elements of good OSH management. Examples of leading indicators [see also [6] [7] are:

  • the percentage of managers with adequate OSH training;
  • percentage of workers with adequate OSH training;
  • percentage of management meetings wherein OSH is addressed;
  • percentage of management-worker meetings wherein OSH is addressed;
  • number of management visits to the shop floor where OSH is addressed;
  • percentage of business partners (suppliers, contractors, etc.) evaluated and selected on the basis of their OSH performance or a widely accepted OSH certificate;
  • number of workplace inspections or scores of workplace inspection systems such as ELMERI or TR Observation;
  • frequency of (observed) (un)safe behaviour;
  • number of OSH audits performed;
  • percentage of OSH projects/activities that are finalised on time;
  • percentage of OSH suggestions or complaints where feedback is given to those reporting within two weeks;
  • number of ‘precursors’ or ‘early warnings’ recognised (that precede serious safety problems’;
  • prevalence of certain health problems, e.g. as outcomes of health checks or health surveillance;
  • Work Ability Index (predicting the likelihood of early retirement);
  • safety climate (survey).

As the examples show, leading indicators tend to focus on the positive rather than the negative. They focus primarily on actions undertaken to prevent OSH problems. Sometimes whether a KPI is regarded as positive or negative is more or less arbitrary. For instance, a high number of reported dangerous situations can be regarded as negative (there are too many dangerous situations), but also as positive (the employees are clearly motivated to report dangerous situations and trust that the managers will use the information). Unfortunately, the predictive value of good OSH outcomes may differ according to the situation.

Economic indicators

For organisations, it can be also relevant to measure the economic impacts of OSH.

It can be useful to know how much the organisation ‘invests’ in certain preventive actions. This is important because financial resources are scarce and should be used efficiently. Moreover, many preventive actions have a positive impact on production [e.g. [8]; these are usually much more difficult to measure. However, showing the ‘return on prevention’ is important to confirm that past OSH investments were cost effective; this may facilitate future investments in OSH prevention.

Nowadays, many organisations are using a form of the ‘balanced score card’ to manage their business processes. A balanced score card combines four perspectives: finance, customer, process and potential/learning. It can be beneficial for organisations to develop an OSH balanced score card [9]. The four dimensions can then be translated as: (i) the economic dimension: cost and benefits and associated economic goals associated with OSH; (ii) strategic OSH goals defined by the internal stakeholders; (iii) the contribution of OSH processes to safety and health and to OSH-relevant behaviour; (iv) the potential of OSH, i.e. what potentials of the workforce can be developed through OSH (e.g. higher productivity or greater creativity)[9].

Costs and benefits can also be associated with each of the other KPIs. For instance, it can be useful to quantify the costs associated with lost time injuries; in this case, not only should the loss of production time due to the injury be taken into account, but also the other associated costs, e.g. material damage etc.). The percentage of sickness absence is also often translated into financial costs. The outcome may differ according to the country due to differences in social security arrangements. Again, associated costs, e.g. the cost of hiring a temporary replacement or claims from insurers, should also be taken into account.


KPIs and OSH management

OSH measurements should be part of the OSH Management System (the Plan-Do-Check-Act process). It is important for OSH planning (Plan) to check whether OSH activities are implemented and effective (Check), and can serve as a regular input for the process of developing, adapting and reviewing OSH policy. In such a process, several performance-related questions may arise.

Table 1: Performance questions

Where are we now relative to our OSH aims, objectives and ambitions?
Where are we now in terms of controlling hazards and risks?
How do we compare with others?
Are we getting better or worse over time?
Is our OSH management effective?
Is an effective OSH management system in place, across all parts of the organisation and covering all relevant hazards and risks?
Is our culture supportive of health and safety?
What are the direct results (outputs) and outcomes of our preventive activities?


Overview by the author

In general, it is important that OSH goals are SMART. That means they should be specific, measurable, acceptable, realistic and time-bound. In other words: what should be achieved and when should be defined clearly for all OSH activities. The next step is then to develop metrics to monitor and evaluate the process and results. These metrics are KPIs, or the basis for KPIs. When they are measured and monitored, these KPIs can be used to improve OSH management. Moreover, this makes it possible to include the KPIs in the regular ‘planning and control cycle’ of the organisation, which is used to manage the business process.

Companies in both rich and poor countries aim to assure good OSH management not only in their own organisation but also among suppliers, for example, through the use of certificates of OHS management systems.

Communicative value of OSH KPIs

KPIs provide factual information that is relevant to several agents involved in OSH. Managers (at several levels), workers and their representatives, OSH experts and human resource managers are internal users of the information. OSH KPIs can also be relevant to external communication, e.g. with business partners, private or social insurance organisations, or OSH authorities.

Standardised measurements should be preferred: if other organisations use the same KPIs, this greatly facilitates communication and OSH benchmarking, or makes it possible to use the KPIs for OSH competitions and awards. There are no binding standards for internal or external OSH reporting. However, the framework developed by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is nowadays regarded as an informal standard and is frequently used by multinational companies. It comprises a section on fourteen types of Indicators for Labour Practices and Decent Work. These are defined in close cooperation with the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Four of these indicator types are OSH indicators. They address both the scope of OSH programmes and statistical performance on health and safety. See Table 2.

Table 2: GRI indicator sets for OSH
Source: [10]

Enhancing impact through performance-related pay

OSH KPIs give an organisation insight into OSH performance. Such an overview is important for both managers and workers (or their representatives). However, it is often argued that ‘knowing’ (e.g. that some serious risks exist in the organisation) is not always sufficient to trigger actions for the adequate reduction of such risks. One option is to use OSH KPIs to formulate personal performance goals for managers. This increases the self-interest of the managers in good OSH performance, especially when they are integrated into the criteria for performance-related pay (bonuses) [11]. The same mechanism can also be used to promote safety at the level of teams.


Limitations of KPIs

Good KPIs can influence the image of the organisation, managerial careers and lead to reduced premiums. When KPIs are really important, they may become an aim in themselves. This implies the risk that it might become more important to manipulate the numbers than to realise good OSH [12]. A culture of fear may discourage reporting of incidents and injured people might feel pressure to ‘take some days off’ to avoid 'lost working days'. Organisations can also improve their ‘return to work’ rates after an accident, for example by offering lighter work and transport by taxi. This might be good for the recovery of the workers, but it influences the lost time incident statistics that are supposed to reflect the effectiveness of accident prevention. Indeed, it is always possible to ‘lie with statistics’. For a robust evaluation of KPIs, it may be beneficial to keep the following factors in mind:

  • There is often a preference for measuring things that can easily be counted, e.g. the number of training courses or number of inspections.

•Underreporting (especially of incidents and near misses) is a frequent phenomenon, especially in cases where there is a lack of a positive OSH culture.

  • The difference between a severe accident and a ‘near miss’ is often a matter of luck.
  • Statistical data are by definition not reliable in small enterprises.
  • Positive events are usually not measured and recorded.
  • An outcome measure (e.g. an incident) does not reflect the causes of that event.
  • When numbers or percentages are measured, the quality thereof is not taken into account.
  • A focus on KPIs may drive managers to neglect other important issues that are not measured [13].


Discussion and conclusion

KPIs are important for the effectiveness of the OSH management process. They provide valuable feedback, help to motivate managers and organisations to take action, and are valuable for communication purposes. They are also important for mainstreaming OSH management in business management.

The performance indicators most frequently used reflect past performance; these are valuable, but have limited predictive value. Leading indicators have a greater potential for improving OSH, but are more difficult to standardise. KPIs should not themselves become an aim and it is important to keep in mind that they remain a simplification of reality.


References

  1. ‘8.6 % of workers in the EU experienced work-related health problems’, Statistics in Focus, EUROSTAT, 2009, No 63, pp. 1–12.
  2. Management of occupational safety and health – An analysis of the findings of the European survey of enterprises on new and emerging risks, 2012, EU-OSHA (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work), 2012, 63 pages. Available at:[1]
  3. The fifth European working conditions survey, European Foundation (The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions), 2012, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. Available at:[[2]
  4. Health and safety at work in Europe (1999–2007), Eurostat Statistical Books, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2010.
  5. Oien K., Utne I.B., Tinnmansvik R.K., Massaiu A., ‘Building safety indicators: Part 2 – Application, practices and results, Safety Science 49, No 2, 2011, pp. 162–171.
  6. A guide to measuring health and safety performance, Health and Safety Executive (UK), 2001. Available at:[[3]
  7. Mearns, K., Whitacker, S.M. and Flin R., ‘Safety climate, safety management practice and safety performance in offshore environments’, Safety Science, 41, No 8, 2003, pp. 641–680.
  8. Goetzel, R.Z., Guindon, A.M., Turshen, I.J., Ozminkowski, R.J., ‘Health and productivity management: Establishing key performance measures, benchmarks and best practices’, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 43, No 1, 2001, pp. 10–17.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Köper, B, Möller, K. and Zwetsloot, G.I.J.M., ‘The occupational safety & health scorecard’, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 35, No 6, 2009, pp. 413–420.
  10. ‘Indicator protocol set – Labor practices and decent work (LA)’, Global Reporting Initiative, 2000–2011, version 3.1. Available at:[[4]
  11. Hopkins, A., ‘Thinking about process safety indicators’, Safety Science 2009, 47, No 4, 2009, pp. 460–465.
  12. Frick, K. and Zwetsloot, G.I.J.M., ‘From safety management to corporate citizenship – An overview of approaches to health management. In: U. Johansson, G. Ahonen & R. Roslander (editors), Work Health and Management Control, Thomson Fakta, Stockholm, 2007, pp. 99–134.
  13. Hohnen, P. and Hasle, P., ‘Making work environment auditable – A “critical case” study of certified occupational health and safety management systems in Denmark’, Safety Science, 49, No 7, 2011, pp. 1022–1029.


Links for further reading

EU OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2002). The use of occupational safety and health management systems in the member states of the European Union, Available at:[[5]

EU OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2010), Mainstreaming OSH into Business Management, 196 pages. Available at:[[6]

A guide to measuring health and safety performance, Health and Safety Executive (UK), 2001. Available at:[[7]