Although it can be simple and quick to use, an eight-item health and safety performance measure developed by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) is backed up by quite a lot of science.
In 2008, a team of partners within Ontario’s occupational health and safety (OHS) system set out to answer this question: Can a simple tool be developed to predict a firm’s workplace injury experience based on its OHS policies and practices? The team developed an eight-item questionnaire that was then administered in 2009 to over 600 workplaces. Studies were conducted to make sure that the questionnaire is not overly repetitive, and that it reliably produces the same scores over repeated measures if nothing has changed. Research was then conducted to find out if questionnaire scores are linked to past and future injury claim rates. (The answer: a tentative “yes”.)
Now, to help employers determine how to act on their IWH-OPM scores, a project team has developed a series of follow-up questions for each of the eight items. The development of these questions was informed by a mix of evidence emerging from the IWH’s leading indicators research and field experience offered by the health and safety associations (HSAs) involved.
The idea for these follow-up questions came from the health and safety associations that have been our partners on this project, says Dr. Ben Amick, a senior scientist at IWH and lead researcher on the leading indicators project at the Institute.
These questions are meant to guide organizations toward the next steps they need to take to improve their health and safety performance. They’re for the conversations that come after the poor scores. ‘So you didn’t do well. What’s next?’
Many of the companies taking the IWH-OPM are small businesses, notes Illia Tchernikov, the occupational health and safety research program lead at the Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), one of the HSAs involved in the project. Small businesses might not have the spare resources to hire OHS consultants or purchase training to help them improve.
What you want to avoid is leaving businesses disappointed or confused by their scores, he adds.
They need some easy-to-use resources to point them in the right direction.
What’s more, employers are often reluctant to reach out to health and safety associations for help, adds Henrietta Van hulle, executive director of Health & Community Services at the Public Services Health & Safety Association (PSHSA), another HSA on the project.
We would like them to come to us, but in reality some employers are not going to, she says.
The follow-up questions are important to help these employers address their health and safety issues on their own.
Informed by case studies
To develop the follow-up questions, the researchers drew partly on the HSAs’ input and partly on the case-study research portion of the tool development. This phase of the project was focused on what’s called the tool’s “construct validity”— whether it measures what it purports to measure. For example, firms with better scores on a given aspect should verifiably have better practices on that aspect; poorer scoring firms should demonstrably have worse practices.
For this analysis, a team led by IWH Research Associate Dr. Basak Yanar recruited five firms from four sectors that had completed the questionnaire. At each firm, the team conducted site visits, interviewed key informants and reviewed OHS documentation. They paid attention to OHS practices such as signage, guarding and use of personal protective equipment. They observed workplace practices that went beyond OHS, such as the pace of work or co-worker interactions. They also examined company policies as existed on paper and as applied in documented processes.
This gathering of qualitative evidence helped the team put together a rich descriptive picture of the OHS practices and policies at the five firms, says Dr. Lynda Robson, who oversaw the team. When grouping the firms according to how they scored on the OPM (which was administered again at the start of this phase), the team saw differences between firms with high scores and those with so-so scores.
To take OHS culture as an example, the high-scoring firms had strong, positive safety cultures. Safety was clearly stated as a key organizational value, and messages from senior managers reiterated this. In medium-scoring firms, safety programs were aimed more at legislative compliance; there was no unified safety culture across the organization. At one medium-scoring firm, participants voiced the belief that safety was a personal responsibility and if people did their work carefully, they would’t be injured.
On this and other concepts covered, these observed differences in OHS practices and policies on the ground helped inform the follow-up questions. The expertise of the HSA representatives also played a part, as did the feedback of a select group of HSA consultants, who were sent a draft of the questions and asked for comment.
HSA consultants work with organizations of very different types and sizes, and in very different sectors, says Van hulle.
The benefit of that broad input is that the questions are relevant to any employer, no matter the size, type, sector or subsector.
The follow-up questions are available on the IWH-OPM tool page. In addition, firms using the IWH-OPM can compare their scores against benchmarks for 16 sectors.
A paper authored by Yanar describing the case-study phase of the IWH-OPM project has been submitted to the journal Safety Science. A plenary on that research is also available as a slidecast on IWH’s website.