Since the inception of OSHA over 30 years ago, great improvements have taken place in workplace safety. Beginning with regulatory compliance, continuing with safety systems and program development, and currently with management practices, organizations have reduced injuries and minimized risks tremendously. However, many organizations now find that they have progressed to a high level of safety performance and have leveled off. The ability to make safety improvement has become difficult.
A simplistic Continuum of Improvement model includes four levels:
Failing - Improvements have not started and are therefore failing. Organizations in Level 1 are struggling to meet minimum standards.
Improving - Includes the majority of organizations and covers the widest spectrum of the continuum. A steep rise in safety improvement is seen, but basic regulatory issues and proven safety practices have not been fully implemented.
Excellence - Includes organizations with mature safety processes that follow the "5 Basic Principles" and "10 Key Elements" of Safety Excellence.
World Class - Includes a very small and select group of organizations that continue to improve at the highest level of safety performance.
An organization reaching for world class safety status is analogous to an obese person striving to become a world-class athlete. Recognizing that improvement is needed and having a good idea how to improve is a critical first step, but it does not mean any improvement will be made. Most people have a good idea of what it takes to lose weight and get into better shape. Once they start, early efforts produce obvious improvements and fuel the desire to continue working toward the desired goal. But as higher plateaus are achieved, the ability to make measurable gains becomes more difficult.
The same holds true for safety. After achieving some success in safety, plateaus are reached and leveling off occurs. The pleasure of past accomplishment does not satisfy, the status quo will not suffice, and the barriers to improvement are strong. Instead of facing this dilemma openly, management often holds to the "continuous improvement" mantra. Inane words of commitment from management without the required knowledge and proficiency to progress will lead to setbacks, frustration, and knee jerk decisions.
In order to continue improving at the excellence and world class levels, safety process strengths are not abandoned, but are leveraged and refined. This approach is not "Back to the Basics", which implies starting over. The strategy is to identify weakness in otherwise strong fundamentals, correct the weaknesses, and build on existing success.
A continuum of improvement begs the question of measurement. Determining accurate methods of measuring safety is a monumental challenge and unfortunately, no widely accepted method has replaced frequency rates of OSHA recordable injuries and illness. This inaccurate, arbitrary, and downstream measure has been the impetus for much chaos in the field of safety. Using OSHA recordable rates distorts the true picture, measures failure, is reactive, and motivates companies to make bad decisions.