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Focus on Safety People, Not Safety Numbers

By Bryan McWhorter
Published: June 11, 2020
Key Takeaways

When you focus on your numbers, you're only paying attention to the lagging indicators of safety.

Caption: Workers wearing facemasks Source: nikom1234 / iStock

Focusing on safety data over people is a common cause of frustration among employees. I see this all too often - we focus on numbers and use them to influence people.

We have this backward. We must focus on our people and they will influence the numbers.

“If you can't measure it, you can't manage it” is an often-quoted admonition from W. Edwards Deming. We need numbers that tell us how well we are doing for any activity. I agree. The problems are created when we focus on the numbers rather than the people that influence those numbers.


It is important to measure safety data, such as total recordable accidents and lost time. Depending on the size and type of your business, OSHA might even require that you track and report these numbers each year. However, we need to remember these are lagging indicators. The numbers represent the effectiveness of your safety program.

(Learn more in Straight From the Experts: How to Improve Your Total Recordable Injury Frequency Rate on the Job Site.)

But, to have an effective safety program, you must focus on your people. Set clear goals based on lagging and leading indicators but place your effort and attention on your safety systems and employees. This will build a strong safety culture and your safety numbers will take care of themselves.

W. Edwards Deming was also a proponent of this type of focus. He also said that “All anyone asks for is a chance to work with pride.” We all know if we are valued. Safety programs are meant to protect employees, and this begins by making sure they feel valued. Focus most of your safety efforts on solid safety programs and training employees in them, such as:

  • Hazard identification and risk assessment and control
  • Control measure evaluations (safety systems in place such as respiratory protection, fall safety, hearing protection, etc.)
  • Behavior-based safety observations
  • Safety kaizens (continuous improvement)
  • Safety ownership (each employee is responsible for safety)

(Learn about Implementing a Safety Kaizen Program.)

Developing Employee Competency in Safety

Leadership experts such as Jim Rohn and John Maxwell speak of the importance of personal growth. When you invest in your personal growth, all areas of your life improve. We need to invest time, energy, and attention to the growth of our employees. One Toyota manager put it this way “Before we build cars, we build people.”

Safety programs serve people and enable success. Unfortunately, we can over-focus on the safety goals, without investing in the needed safety programs and training that enable lasting success.

If you had a house plant that you never watered or exposed to sunlight and fresh air, you would not be surprised when the plant failed to flourish. Yet companies invest little effort in caring for the health and well-being of employees and cannot understand why they are disengaged.

(Learn about The Importance of Employee Engagement and Its Impact on Your Bottom Line.)


Let Your Employees Drive the Numbers

Do you spend more time collecting, studying, and presenting safety data than you spend on developing the people that your safety program is meant to protect?

If you coach a football team and want them to win, you focus on developing the skills of the players. The scoreboard reflects how effective they are at using those skills. Safety is no different. Focus on your employees and create sound safety programs and training. No football coach ever had to convince his team that they want to win, and we don't have to convince people to work safely. We just need to give them the skills, tools, and support needed to do it.

Your employee’s skill and efforts will lower recordable injuries, lost time, and all other measurable incidents. Your employees will take ownership of the safety numbers as a reflection of their skills and efforts. Focus on your people. Their safety skill and efforts are the best way to positively influence your safety numbers.

Employees will go for the safety win. Invest in them and you will help them achieve it.


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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

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Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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