Realistic Indicators of Workplace Safety

Seton Canada

Accurately measuring workplace safety may seem easy, but it’s not. Time-loss injury rates and the number of accidents and fatalities during a specific period is an industry standard for measuring safety – with zero as the ultimate goal. In fact, WorkSafe Saskatchewan has set its sights on zero injuries and fatalities with an aggressive “Mission Zero” campaign for workplace safety.

But, is this the best, most realistic indicator of workplace safety?

On April 20, 2010, an explosion and fire on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and injured 17 others.

Yet, prior to this disaster – the largest spill in petroleum history – BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig operated for seven years without a single time-lost incident or major environmental event, according to Judy Agnew, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Safety Solutions at Aubrey Daniels International in her latest book Safe By Accident? Take the Luck out of Safety, Leadership Practices that Build Sustainable Safety Culture.

“Looking backwards at how many people have been hurt and lost time injury rates doesn’t tell us what people are doing to prevent accidents” now and in the future,” she says. “When a company has a zero incident rate, it gives the impression that everything is under control and safety’s just fine, so what happens is people can focus on other things.”

Agnew calls these statistics “lagging” indicators, measurements of what went wrong. She stresses that they are not only a poor measure of workplace safety; they’re “the root cause” for many of these injuries and accidents.

Do you want to gamble on the safety of your workers and your workplace waiting for an accident to happen to address safety problems in your workplace? Doesn’t it make more sense to prevent those injuries and accidents before they happen by using more realistic or “leading” indicators instead of “lagging” indicators?

“Such measures – lagging indicators – tell us how many people got hurt and how badly, but they do not tell us how well a company is doing at preventing accidents and incidents,” Agnew says. “Incident rates can get better or worse with absolutely no change in safety conditions at work.”

Zero Time Loss Injuries

Aiming at zero time-loss injuries is completely unrealistic and in safety management achieving those goals doesn’t prove anything, according to Alan D. Quilley, CRSP, Alberta safety consultant and author of several books including The Emperor Wears No Hard Hat. “

“Even if zero harm is accomplished for a measurable period of time, it doesn’t offer prove that people accomplishing it have done their work safely,” he says.

Quilley has a problem with absolutes like “zero” or “perfection” because, he says, no one is perfect and “nothing in human experience has proven us to be perfect performers at anything. Humans make mistakes.” It’s part of our nature. It’s how we learn and grow, he says.

“Misusing injury data to demonstrate the existence of safety,” Quilley says, “is akin to claiming that because you go to a general practitioner every year, you will be healthy – and not being sick all year is proof of that.”

Traditionally, in safety management, there’s this link between lack of injury and safety goals. “Zero injuries at any time period does not prove anything, except that you haven’t had any injuries,” Quilley says.

“There is no such thing as a perfect measure of safety, so don’t waste time trying to find or create one,” Agnew states. Instead, develop good ways to create “leading” indicators for workplace safety that can signal and prevent future events. Here are a few of her guidelines.

“Leading” indicators should:

a)    Allow you to see small improvements in performance
b)    Measure the positive: what people are doing versus failing to do
c)    Make it clear what needs to be done to get better
d)    Increase constructive problem solving around safety
e)    Provide frequent feedback. Feedback should help workers get better, not just be information. Let performers know how they are doing daily and weekly so they can see the impact of their improvements




  1. Agree. A company with a history of zero accidents and mishap in the workplace doesn’t mean it will always be an accident free workplace if the right precautions and safety procedures are not done.

    • Sandy Naiman says:

      Hi John,

      You’re right on the mark. Thank you for lending your knowledgeable and experienced voice to this vital conversation.

      Cutting corners with safety by relying on “lagging indicators” like a “history of zero accidents” is really dicey. Too often, only after an accident or mishap, does safety management get major attention. And then it may be too late.

      Production is vital, and I’m not denying it. But invariably a safe workplace is also a more productive workplace. Accidents and injuries are more costly than the extra time and effort to it takes to build safety into every day workplace activity and make safety behaviours habitual with your workers – developing a safety culture.

      Those are the “right precautions and safety procedures,” you mention and I’m so happy that you support these ideas because you work in the field.

      I appreciate your comment and hope you’ll keep on commenting.

      Take care and be safe.



  2. D. Morris says:

    I think there’s a real sub culture of this ‘anti-Goal Zero’ mindset that just seems to be a platform for self righteous HSE ‘specialists’ to voice their ‘Goal Zero is rediculous’ opinions.

    Once again, a focus on the negative has overcome an entire cultural shift of what and why Goal Zero is important. Why is Goal Zero important? It’s not about a Goal specifically it’s about the culture, zero harm, zero accidents, and none should be tolerated or accepted as ‘part of doing business’. This is only a part of the Proactive initiatives that can be included in your Leading Indicators. Do employees accept Risk as a fact of business, because they should. And do they have a zero harm mindset about that Risk?
    That is the difference.

    Goal zero is an indicator and not much more, that the HSE cultural platform of your organization may be shifting to new mindsets and attitudes. The ‘once was’ acceptable actions, to not report, not intervene, not repair, and to not praise, are changing.
    And that is what goal zero is about.

    The fact that some author or glorified blogger can parade around his pages telling us that ‘humans make mistakes’ and goal zero is a myth… is old news buddy. We already know humans mistakes.

    Why is Goal Zero truly important?.. the morality of it, the philosophy…

    Empowering workers to Recognize and Identify Hazards, having Quality Discussions, with Risk Mitigation and Control, is just a small part of the Zero Harm philosophy.
    And I support it.

    D. Morris
    Worksite Hazard Management

    • Sandy Naiman says:

      Hi D. Morris,

      Thanks for sending this thoughtful comment.

      I think we’re all on the same page. We’re all talking about improving the safety “culture” of the workplace. “Goal Zero” is really a metaphor, just like “there are no accidents,” which underlines Saskatchewan’s workplace safety approach.

      What we’re trying to do here is keep people thinking, discussing and working towards improving the safety culture of their workplaces. We like to give people practical tips on how to make their workplaces safer. There are many different approaches, including “occupational hygienics,” which sounds like your approach, or one of them.

      Your continuing the conversation in pointing out the philosophy beneath these “lagging” and “leading” indicators is helpful and instructive for all of us..

      “Goal Zero” is an ideal that may not be achievable because we’re human, at the same time believing those “lagging” indicators – like “zero time loss injuries” or “zero accidents” – can give people a false sense of safety security.

      Don’t you think that the real goal is a safety culture where everyone feels a personal stake in safety from the CEO to the front line workers. In Ontario, it’s called the “Integrated Responsibility System.”

      Quilley, who worked in construction for years, suggests an alternative to “zero injury commitment,” a paradigm shift in attitude and approach, “a better way,” like this: “Our company will strive to do our work in a safe and healthy way. We will use knowledge gained by experiences to continually improve our behaviours and processes to ensure safety excellence in our work. This we can accomplish and will get us exceptional results.”

      He also suggests “that instead of measuring what doesn’t happen (like zero time-loss injuries) gathering evidence that workers are working safely through observation and discussion,” is a practical approach to creating a safety culture. “In this context, safety means ‘without unnecessary risk.’ Risk is certain. Working in a managed risk way is clever, achievable and measurable. It will also give you the predictable result of very few injuries.”

      Your approach is absolutely right, too. And Judy Agnew would also agree. She stresses, that “frequent conversations establish the safety activities as priorities and allow real-time coaching for improving performance.”

      Your final statement reinforces what Quilley and Agnew are saying.

      Thanks so much for emphasizing the importance of constantly re-examining how workplace safety is perceived and measured. This is a conversation that has to continue, which is what you’ve done with your astute observations.

      I hope you’ll keep on reading and commenting here. We can all benefit from your expertise.


      Sandy Naiman

  3. Joseph Slavin says:

    Well done to separate the ‘Philosophy as metaphor’ from the ‘Goals as targets’ debate. It is always interesting and informative to view things from multiple perspectives, particularly when our initial beliefs appear to be vigorously opposed to another.

    Your example of seeing “no such thing as an accident” as a metaphor for the philosophy that ‘most accidents are preventable’, provides a wonderful bridge between the literal and the representational. We use words to express ideas and sometimes they fail us.

    D. Morris raises awareness to the “other side” of the discussion and you have done a nice job of seeing and articulating the value in both perspectives. The debate (if we want to call it that) simply reminds us how challenging communicating ideas can become.

    • Sandy Naiman says:

      Hi Joe,

      Thank you for this thought-provoking, insightful comment. Please forgive my taking so long to respond, but I was out of the country and “unplugged” for a week.

      One of the fascinating aspects of our “continuing conversation” here a Job Safety, or indeed, on any blog, is the enriching reactions that are shared between writers and readers. We all continue to learn more and understand more about the subject at hand. This really is, as you state, a debate, especially when a writer and thinker such as you infuses his comment with such wisdom and a keen comprehension of the complexities of the matter at hand.

      Communication, as you rightly conclude, is challenging, which is one reason I love to write and I suspect, you do, too.

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading, rereading and reflecting on your erudite comment/reply to D. Morris.

      Profound thanks for taking the time to “pen” it. I sincerely hope you will continue to visit us here and to share your incisive ideas with us in our quest to provoke thought and help to make workplaces safer for everyone.

      Take care and be safe.

      All my best,

  4. Brian Mellon CRSP/NCSO says:

    I believe that all Safety Professionals strive for a “Zero” Harm Workplace.

    The problem with the “Zero” slogan is that people do not have complete control over their working environment – be it tools, the job task, the weather they work in, distractions, curiosity, money concerns, etc. Until we can have that level of control, workplace incidents will occur.

    We need to use all the tools in our safety tool box to help these folks such as training, mentoring, coaching, inspections, safety meetings, behaviour observations, culture building, caring for each other etc. These will and do help us minimize incidents – in particular their severity on likelihook of occurrence.

    Unfortunately the Utopian workplace where everything is under our direct control at all times, without other influences affecting us is not alive an well in our world. We are human. We make mistakes. The smartest, greatest most caring people make mistakes. It’s how humans learn and it is how we get better.

    • Sandy Naiman says:

      Hi Brian,

      Great comment. You’ve touched on several really intriguing points and I’m happy that you have contributed to this conversation so thoughtfully.

      Everything you say about “Zero-ism” if you like, is true. You won’t find any disagreement here. “Zero” in the context of job safety, however, is a euphemism for perfect. And as you know, nobody is perfect. Nothing is perfect.

      You’re right about using all the tools we have to help people perform more safely at work. Perhaps we have to go even further by developing new tools and new strategies. Today, the accepted norm for measuring safety in the workplace is a number of injuries and accidents. Governments use those measures and make laws for the workplace according how those measures are interpreted. How do you change that dynamic?

      Part of human nature is that we learn from our mistakes, as you say. Unfortunately, we never learn as much from what we do right. Maybe that’s a place to put some energy – by celebrating workers’ achievements at all levels, large and small, instead of focusing on what they do wrong. Positive reinforcement for things that are done well. It’s time-consuming and business doesn’t work that way, but the problem with learning from our mistakes in the workplace is that it’s potentially harmful and even deadly.

      I don’t have the answers, but I think continuing the discussion, as you have here, is part of the solution. Every story and video on this site is written or created to help you and others think and rethink job safety and how keep workers safe on the job. We can always make things better and what we’re all about is making sure that people never become complacent and keep trying to make things better.

      “Zero” is intimidating, don’t you think? Maybe it’s time to change the slogan. Can you think of something better? I’m sure you can. You’ve put a lot of thought into this.

      Thanks so much for writing and please keep reading and writing. We depend on your input and ideas. We’re a community and sharing ideas keeps us going.


  5. Brian Mellon CRSP/NCSO says:

    On my last post I meant to comment that I agreed with Mr. Quilley’s statement “Humans make mistakes.” It’s part of our nature. It’s how we learn and grow”.
    My paraphrase was not meant to be an original comment or thought.


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