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From Defense to Offense on Safety

From Defense to Offense on Safety

June 13, 2024
Traditional safety metrics are backward-looking, but operational KPIs—particularly overall equipment effectiveness—can give manufacturers an advance look at when safety issues are likely to arise.

Leaders recognize that the reliance on lagging safety metrics is insufficient. Traditional indicators such as total recordable injury rate (TRIR), days away restricted or transferred (DART), and long-term injury frequency rate (LTIFR) are accurate measures of the long-term success of a safety program, but they provide little advance insight into future outcomes.

There has long been a push to identify leading metrics that can indicate the status of a safety program and the likelihood that risk tolerance is rising and injuries are imminent. We believe that operational indicators, especially overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), can serve this function, giving leaders a forward-looking view of when safety issues could emerge.

The long-term goal of zero workplace injuries or illnesses feels more elusive than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, injury rates have declined significantly over the long term, but progress has slowed in recent years.

Moreover, fatality rates have plateaued for more than a decade and recently shown an uncomfortable increase. Several factors could exacerbate the situation. An ever-shrinking workforce is being pushed to increase productivity.

More than 10,000 baby boomers retire each day, leading to a critical loss of institutional knowledge. New technology, the aftereffects of the pandemic, and new ways of working are all changing the risk profile across all industries.

However, a significant number of organizations still rely solely on lagging safety indicators, such as the rate of injuries per 200,000 hours. From leadership meetings to line-shift briefings, teams continue to ask, “Was there an injury today?” That approach is simply insufficient and does not accurately reflect the safety risk affecting an organization. It is akin to driving while looking only at the rear-view mirror.

The false choice between safety and productivity

Safety professionals continually wrestle with the perception that safety and operational performance are at odds with each other. Taglines such as “safety is the top priority” are contrasted with the constancy of operational metrics reviewed at every daily shift briefing. Employees regularly respond to safety assessments sharing their perception that safety is important only when productivity is not.

This is a false choice.

Safe operations and high productivity are aligned, and safety leaders should consider adding an operational metric as a key safety leading indicator to help bridge this gap.

The Campbell Institute, part of the National Safety Council, published a comprehensive guide of leading metrics in 2019, including methods to implement them. These leading indicators were organized into a variety of categories ranging from hazard identification to safety culture. The guide identifies a number of leading metrics that are relatively easy to produce and can accurately assess the health of the safety system.

Of those, the most operationally aligned leading indicator is machine integrity, which suggests using factors such as minutes of equipment downtime and number of unexpected equipment failures as low-complexity opportunities. We posit that using overall equipment effectiveness, an operational metric used to assess the effectiveness of manufacturing productivity, is a meaningful upgrade in this area.

OEE brings alignment and provides an early indication of changes in organizational risk. It is a product of three factors: equipment availability, equipment performance and quality. Although these factors fundamentally assess operations, they have deep ties to safety as well.

Looking at each element helps to shed light on the direct connection between safety and operations.

1. Equipment availability

Availability is an indicator of equipment uptime. Not only was machine integrity identified as a crucial leading metric by the Campbell Institute, but mechanical integrity and quality assurance (MIQA) is a vital part of process safety management programs as defined in OSHA 1910.119, in part because equipment failures are much more likely to lead to serious injuries or fatalities.

Furthermore, maintenance is perhaps the highest-risk activity in manufacturing. Equipment must be shut down through standardized processes, and technicians must navigate the process of de-energizing equipment and implementing lock/tag/try procedures. Technicians must often perform their work in high-risk environments, including confined spaces, hot work or exposure to normally well-guarded machinery.

Furthermore, if downtime is unplannedthat is, due to a breakdown rather than scheduled maintenanceorganizations face added risk in the form of distraction, rushing, and stress, all of which can lead to cognitive decline and poor decision-making.

Though planned downtime for maintenance is somewhat better than unplanned downtime, all maintenance activity carries inherently higher risk profiles. Therefore, any meaningful decline in the asset availability factor of OEE can be a critical signal of increased risk for safety managers and operations leaders alike.

2. Equipment performance

The second factor of OEE is equipment performance, which measures the productivity of a piece of equipment versus its planned productivity. Productivity declines often suggest some form of abnormal operating condition, which inherently implies an increased risk profile. Productivity declines could also suggest a potential cultural issue of increased risk tolerance concurrent with or subsequent to the productivity decline.

When equipment availability is high but productivity is low, foremen, supervisors, managers and leaders may put added pressure on employees to produce. In doing so, they send a message—explicitly or implicitly—that safety can be sacrificed in favor of operational output. This rhetoric can undermine a safety mindset and spur operators to push the boundaries of normal equipment operation to make up the difference.

3. Quality

The final component of OEE is quality. Goods that fail quality inspections have many potential causes and are not necessarily related to operator action. However, quality issues often result in added pressure to identify root causes and deliver higher productivity to compensate for the loss and meet customer demands. Consistent with the elevated risk profile of low productivity, it may result in a sense of urgency that increases risk or sends conflicting messages about leadership commitment to safety.

Few long-term studies have looked at the relationship between OEE and safety, though intuitively it makes sense. Ron Moore, an author on productivity and waste reduction, did find a correlation, which he published in an article in Lifecycle Engineering. His research included plotting OEE with injury rate and found a strongly inverse correlation. Moore recommends linking reliability to safety as a means to prove that safety commitment is more than just words.

Putting safety and operations on the same page

Given the connection between OEE and safety—not to mention the potential long-term benefits of better aligning operations objectives with safety programs—the path forward is clear.

Use OEE and its components as critical indicators of increased operational risk. OEE is measured continuously and therefore can be talked about daily. Viewing OEE as solely an operational metric misses a crucial opportunity to reinforce a culture of safety and undervalues a valid and easy-to-adapt indicator of potential incidents in the workplace. Review OEE in the safety portion of every shift transition and address the increased risk factors that are inherent in equipment downtime, productivity loss or quality issues.

Engage operations as part of the risk management strategy. Metrics drive action, and safety leaders should engage with other stakeholders to maintain high OEE as a risk mitigation activity. Work to improve operational reliability and ensure that your safety activities help identify risks that affect uptime, impact productivity or lead to quality issues.

Integrate safety and operational reviews. Observations, audits and inspections occur as part of the regular course of safety programs. They also occur as part of operational reviews. Duplicating these processes is both time-consuming and ineffective, as it isolates vital information. Integrating these elements underscores the dual reinforcing concept of safe operations.

Create a culture of safe operations. Injuries often occur when employees deviate from procedures through well-intended attempts to improve productivity, such as reaching into a piece of equipment to remove a jam rather than de-energizing and performing lock-out/tag-out procedures or stepping off a powered industrial vehicle before it has come to a complete stop.

Train supervisors, managers and operations leaders to speak to safety as a motivator for safe operations, thereby establishing the foundation for a culture of safety. The right culture emphasizes behaviors and communication built on the premise that a safety mindset leads to higher OEE, and vice versa.

If we truly believe that all injuries are preventable, then we must look beyond traditional safety metrics and incorporate leading indicators such as OEE. A decline in any contributing metric of OEE sends a signal that an injury is forthcoming. Safety professionals that heed that signal will take a meaningful step in building a safer workplace.

About the Author

Oliver Zeranski

New York–based partner Oliver Zeranski’s first engagement at Kearney was a chemicals due diligence. More than a decade later, he is the lead for the firm’s chemicals and energy practice in the Americas.

Oliver’s career has taken him around the world, including a year and half in the Middle East and six months in Australia. He’s also worked on one of the largest M&A projects in the world, with the chance to see the complexity and enormity of one of the world’s most unique sectors. “The chemicals industry is the most global industry out there,” he says. “That brings long supply chains.”

About the Author

Andy Walberer

Andy Walberer is a partner with Kearney and leader of the Firm’s Global Chemicals Practice. We work with Chemical companies and their customer industries to address major strategic and performance improvement opportunities.

Over 20+ years,  he has served more than 50 clients across the chemicals value chain from petrochemical and diversified companies to specialty materials and end-users including consumer goods, automotive, and healthcare companies. Have supported clients across the business lifecycle from startups to corporate and across market positions from disadvantaged to market leaders.


About the Author

Rajeev Prabhakar

Rajeev Prabhakar’s journey to consulting hasn’t been typical: after obtaining a PhD in chemical engineering, he spent the first few years of his career working in the chemical industry. Rajeev brings a range of industry experience to his consulting engagements, from time spent as a general manager to working on the plant floor. “I love being on the ground,” he says.

About the Author

Rich Eagles

Rich Eagles is a princial in the energy and process industries practice at Kearney. With more than 20 years of experience leading teams and delivering transformational results at a number Fortune 100 companies globally, Rich brings his experience in both B2B and B2C environments to deliver value. Industry clients have included retail, direct to consumer, consumer products, high tech, chemicals, discreet manufacturing, automotive, energy and services companies. 

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