Managing Safety: Steps in Safety Strategy: Executive Decision Making & Metrics

Sept. 1, 2009
Safety as a strategic objective, where employee well-being is linked in thought and practice to the success of the organization, implies a fundamental shift in organizational practices, thinking and culture.

It is not enough to say that safety has been elevated to a core value. For many organizations, existing safety practices and measures were designed around the view of safety as a stand-alone performance measure. But attending to safety issues separate from their context within the organization, not considering the safety impact of business systems and decisions and relying solely, or too much, on lagging indicators, are all ways of detaching from, rather than connecting to, fundamental business objectives.

In previous columns we looked at the first six of 10 actions that help leaders establish safety as a strategic objective. The next steps involve integrating safety with executive decisionmaking, where strategy happens and developing metrics of progress and process that allow leaders to effect safety strategy more precisely.


Many leaders are surprised when they learn the root cause of an incident traces back years to an organizational decision made at a very high level. Yet decisions that influence safety, even indirectly, are made all the time. Staffing levels, promotions (e.g. how we handle leaders who are highly productive but demonstrably unconcerned for employee wellbeing), budgets, new projects and other key issues directly can effect exposure levels, or provide consequences for organizational behaviors that do.

Safety leadership means considering the long-term implications of all strategic decisions. A safety leader not only encourages and accepts input regarding how the decision could negatively impact exposure, culture or systems, he or she also establishes mechanisms that solicit this type of information as a standard part of the decision-making process. Critically, leaders should consider:

  • Establishing the relationship between safety and other performance metrics in the organization, thereby reconciling perceived conflicts between safety and other objectives.

  • Using every speech, decision or stance as an opportunity to send a message about the importance of safety.

  • Communicating the rationale for team decisions to the organization, including assessment of the safety impact.

  • Communicating to the organization that consideration of safety impact should be included as part of the decision criteria for all relevant decisions.


Effective governance of safety requires timely and accurate data. Many organizations rely too heavily on lagging data sources. Such measures as incident reporting and recordable rates, while useful, are widely recognized as inadequate for assessing a complete picture of performance. When the board and senior leaders of an organization become serious about the pursuit of safety, they insist on regular updates on both upstream and downstream safety measures. These updates could include:

  • The percent conformance to proactive, safety-critical behaviors and processes.

  • The progress made on identified issues and hazards.

  • The level of exposure present in the workplace as measured through valid samples of the working interface.

  • The effectiveness and impact of sustaining systems (such as performance management, budget allocations and rewards and recognition) on safety processes.

  • The rate of adverse outcomes, such as injury rate, near misses and incident reporting.

The more successful we are at safety, the less we can rely on traditional indicators such as injury rates. To assure that these metrics are used, it is helpful to develop aligned scorecards for levels below the senior team and data capture systems to “roll up” safety data for the senior team.


Leadership is about seeing the right things to do to reach organizational objectives and then motivating the organization to do these things properly and effectively. This strategic work is manifested by decisionmaking. Supported by robust and timely data, leaders are positioned to engage in safety as a core part of the business, and leverage their unique ability and position to advance performance.

In the next column, we will address the last two of the 10 steps, which focus on sustaining the change.

Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm.

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