Ever wonder how companies win safety awards or achieve zero injuries? Safety benchmarking could be the explanation and the path to accomplish success with your safety program. As defined by American Productivity & Quality Center, benchmarking is a “process of identifying, understanding, and adapting outstanding practices and processes from organizations anywhere in the world to help your organization improve its performance.” When applied to safety, it can aid in implementing safety best practices, which could help eliminate accidents.

You must understand benchmarking to implement it effectively. Before explaining what it is, several misconceptions must be addressed. Benchmarking is not just participating in a survey. A survey may provide interesting numbers and rank participants, but it is only a starting point. A survey will only tell you where you rank and identify companies with whom you may want to benchmark. Similarly, benchmarking is more than just research. Collecting other companies’ safety handbooks and programs is fine, but you need more. True benchmarking will measure the effectiveness of programs. You need to compare your company’s systems and those with whom you are benchmarking. Do not begin benchmarking until you have analyzed your own processes and established your own baseline. Also, never start a benchmarking process with a predetermined mark. The process itself establishes benchmarks.

The benchmarking process begins with a self-analysis. Identify your problem areas. You may need a range of techniques and measures or metrics, including informal conversations with employees; observations; questionnaires; job hazard analyses (JHA); accident investigations; and injury, illness and fatality statistics. The metrics are categorized as leading and/or lagging.

Leading measures are performance-driven indicators. These measures look at activities that “drive” or lead to performance. Common leading indicators include the following:

• Site safety reports
• Safety meeting attendance
• The percentage of complete safety action plans (safety work orders open versus closed/resolved)
• Reduction in trend behavior observations
• Corrective findings from root cause analysis
• Internal peer reviews
• Inspections

Job briefings
Lagging measures are results-oriented. The focus is on measures at the end, which characterize historical performance. The following are the most common lagging measures used in the safety industry:

• Recordable incident rate (RIR)
• Lost workday case rate (LWDR)
• Days away restricted or transferred (DART) rate
• Experience modification rate (EMR)

EMR is a calculation performed by insurance companies looking at a three-year history of company claims and comparing it with the average loss for companies in that same classification. Other lagging measures often used are motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) and the total cost and/or number of workers’ compensation claims, and severity. Severity is basically a measure of the total lost work days per lost time incident.

A near miss is a common measurement that, depending on how it is used, can be leading or lagging. For example, as part of its fall-prevention program, one company set up an early warning system. Whenever an employee was in a position where a fall may occur, it was recorded as a near miss, and a warning was issued. The warning was actually a performance-driver. On the other hand, in most companies, a near miss would not be recorded unless the employee almost fell or actually fell with no injury. This measure would be lagging.

Identifying partners
Once you have assessed your company, the next step is to identify other companies with which you can benchmark. It may not be as easy as you might think. The knee-jerk reaction is to look at companies in your industry that are top performers and try to mimic their processes. Interestingly enough, finding the top performers or like-industry companies is not important. Experienced benchmarkers look for best-in-class organizations with a “best practice,” not “best performance.”

Consider this: if your analysis reveals you have an issue with falls from elevations and you look to a best performer overall whose great safety record is a function of its low incident rate with musculoskeletal and other types of injuries but it has a poor fall record, you may get little help from its processes. Similarly, you may want to look to other industries. One of the best examples of benchmarking across industries is Henry Ford’s model of the assembly line. All industries adopted it. Safety culture is another process that can be universally applied.

Given these thoughts, do not disregard top performers. Instead, use their rank as a starting point. Then perform a detailed survey of their measures and practices. Target specific processes for which you need assistance. When analyzing their processes, ensure you determine if the methodology they use is consistent with your company’s overall strategy and business goals. Introducing a practice that is dependent on a reporting structure foreign to your company may not be successful no matter how well the practice works elsewhere.

Typically, the in-depth survey is followed by site visits to the select companies. The parties conduct a mutual exchange of information, requiring all parties to follow a benchmarking code of conduct. Be prepared, and always fulfill requests from your benchmarking partners on time. Never discuss activities that can be construed as illegal, such as price fixing (i.e., assigning a set cost for the industry for a given safety practice). Treat your benchmarking partners’ information as confidential. Do not use it for any other purpose than what you agreed on. Do not use the site visit as an opportunity to make contact with anyone other than the individual with whom you have made contact to benchmark, unless directed to by that individual. The bottom line is you should use the Golden Rule—treat your partner and his or her information the way you would like him or her to treat you and yours.

The final step
Implementing your newfound practices is key. Even though you may think it’s the final step, keep in mind benchmarking is an ongoing process. The implementation is merely the end of a loop in a series of cyclical operations. Your implementation should be part of a safety management system. As such, you should monitor it and make improvements as needed. A practice does not become a best practice until it has been proven to yield positive results repeatedly. Measurements must be made of its effectiveness. If your measurements indicate further improvement is needed, the system loop should send you back to the benchmarking for further study of the practice as used by your company compared to the others.

Ongoing failures could be a factor of your benchmarking efforts or implementation. Be careful what you attempt. Do not try to benchmark a total system. It will be extremely costly, take ages and may be too difficult to remain focused. It is better to select one or several processes that form a part of the total system. Work with one initially, and then move on to the next part of the system. Also avoid picking a topic that is too intangible and difficult to measure. “Employee communication” is probably the most slippery concept that exists in an organization. Unfortunately, it is often cited as one of the worst problems, so many try to benchmark it. Instead, pick a part of the topic that can be observed and measured; for instance, you could adopt the practice of distributing safety memos around the company.

Document the benchmarking process itself and the practice being studied. It is an excellent method for ensuring your benchmarking efforts are successful and provide a return on investment. The following elements should be part of a best practice:

• Title—The title is self-explanatory. Just ensure it clearly identifies the practice for all.
• Description—Thoroughly describe the practice. Identify each component and details of implementation taken.
• Improvement measures—Identify the measures used and improvements made in those metrics.
• Track the actions—Describe the steps taken from beginning to end in the benchmarking effort.
• Resources—Identify the resources used. This includes sources of safety programs researched, surveys performed and measures found.
• Lessons learned—Document problems you had in your study and how they were resolved, as well as actions you would or would not take in future benchmarking efforts.
• Tools and techniques used—List all tools or techniques. This includes calculations, databases or even physical tools or equipment, such as a particular personal fall arrest system.

Driving safety performance
Benchmarking has become a critical driver for safety performance. It has infiltrated almost every industry. This introduction should provide electrical contractors with the basic knowledge needed to begin benchmarking.

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 and joconnor@intecweb.com.