By Phil La Duke
A common leading indicator for safety is involvement in safety meetings, but to risk sounding like Bill Clinton’s infamous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” quote what constitutes “involved in safety meetings”? To answer that question we have to define “involved” “safety” and “meetings” (and hell you might as well define “in” while you’re at it.) To be a true leading indicator, that is, a measure of something that positively correlates to future safe performance, something must directly or indirectly align with things that promote safety (in my view of the world: improved competency, better process capability, more effective management of risk and hazards, heightened accountability, or stronger engagement).
Participation in safety meetings if often used as a leading indicator, presumably of worker engagement; the assumption being that the more one is engaged the more likely one is to attend safety meetings. There is a lot of noise in this particular indicator. Let’s face it one could attend a safety meeting because they serve croissants and one love’s croissants (“they’re like a little bite of Paris”) and one’s wife won’t let one have that at home because she’s a bossy shrew who nags one for being too fat (like she’s Christi Turlington) when she has no room (literally) to talk. One also might go to safety meetings because it beat’s unclogging stopped up toilets because one’s coworkers desperately need more fiber in their diets. One might even go to safety meetings because the new safety intern is really hot and who knows she might be single and might be interested in going to lunch sometime, heck she might even have daddy issues. In short, attendance at a safety meeting can indicative of many things (I forgot that one might be clinically insane and just LOVE to go to meetings—run for city council you freak and leave me out of your twisted fantasies, but then, as I inevitably do, I digress.)
But the supposition remains that people who go to safety meetings are more engaged in safety than those who don’t “aren’t” involved in safety meetings persists and if you can forget all the statistical noise associated with this indicator, you still find yourself led back to the need to define what it means be involved with safety meetings.
Ostensibly attendance at safety meetings should be an easy variable to measure: either someone was at the meeting or they were not. This takes us to the Slick Willie style reasoning of what exactly does “at the meeting” means. This will surprise some, but I was a handful as a student. I was knew the rules and followed them to the letter, the whole time circumventing the spirit of the rule. I was, what an employer who I affectionately refer to as the Devil, called “maliciously obedient”. (The term was new to me so I asked for some clarification and he told me that “malicious obedience” is the practice of doing exactly what one is told to do while knowing the whole time that doing so would lead to disaster and ruin.) My attendance record was actually pretty good, although I seldom went to class. The process of taking attendance at my high school was for the teacher to take attendance (noting who was there and who was not and jotting the results down on small yellow sheet of paper and then sending to down to the office in care of a student.) In geometry class (something that no one except carpet layers will ever use) I would always volunteer to take the slip to the office after which I would stop by the cafeteria (so often that the faculty advisor thought that was my actual lunch period) and never return to geometry. I got a C+ which is pretty amazing considering that I was only about 12% of the time. It was a win-win I got out of geometry and a highly disruptive presence was removed from the classroom. The point is I “attended” geography every day; hell I don’t make the rules, I just have to live by them. So the point being that when you are using attendance at the meeting as a criterion for engagement, you might consider counting only those who are on time and stay until the meeting is concluded.
Participation is also a tricky thing to measure. I participated in all my classes in high school except geometry (seriously, I have to prove the Pythagorean theorem? Can’t we just take Pythagoras’s word for it? And who’s to say if I can’t prove his precious theorem that HE’s not wrong? Isn’t that the point of proving something? So anyway, I participated a lot, usually in the form of non-sequiturs and wise-ass comments but by the strictest definition I was indeed participating, in fact much more so than my classmates. When it comes to participation in safety meetings any measurement is going to be subjective. If someone shows up and sits arms crossed with a furrowed brow harrumphing through the meeting I wouldn’t consider that participation. I think we need to qualify the word “participation” as “constructive participation” it may not be any less subjective but I think it paints a clearer vision of exactly what “counts” as participation.
I’ve sat through too many meetings that seemed to have the sole goal of wasting the time of everyone involved. If your safety meetings aren’t focused on a tight agenda; if for instance the meetings are little more than gripe sessions where people get together and shout about how nothing get fixed and how sick of it they all are. Having a good agenda is only half the battle; even the best agenda is worthless in the hands of a weak facilitator. The facilitator is there to keep the meeting on track. If the facilitator doesn’t keep the meeting on track it is within the right of all team members to call for a “process check” and pull the meeting back on track. Like most of the other criteria for success determining the quality of the focus of a meeting is also really subjective.
While it can be easy to question the value of subject data as terms of an indicator, but provided one uses the same subjective criteria each time, and as long as one is honest (not juking the stats) this can be valuable information. I still don’t think anyone has found a strong leading indicator around engagement (let’s face it even in 100% of the people participated in meetings, reported near misses, completed of safety surveys, or made suggestions for safety improvements it really doesn’t cleanly correlate to worker engagement) we don’t know what’s really inside people’s heads. Engagement is closely related to one’s attitude and overall morale and there are so many organizational things that have nothing to do with safety that can skew the data, and if we are looking at skewed data than we are acting on a hunch in the guise of data.