Measuring OHS Input to Operational Tasks

No matter what your position in the company please read this article by Les Henley about how to measure effective OHS input to operational tasks. The way OHS is viewed in our workplaces affects us all.

Supervisors and employees at the coal-face are constantly being encouraged to minimise the costs of doing operational tasks so that “the business” can maximise the profits. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But can we afford to minimise the cost of doing the OHS component of a task?

OHS costs vs unsafe profit practiceEvery operational task will consume a finite and measurable amount of labour whether it be a production line assembly process, a routine service of an air-conditioning air-handling unit in a ceiling space, or a non-routine analysis and repair of an electrical failure. This is the basis of how organisations charge for products and services – the hourly rate that goes to calculating unit costs.

But how does an organisation assess the OHS component of the same operational task?

We know, from inordinate experience across all industries, that the cost of failing to prevent injuries results in a range of significant costs to the business – not least being workers compensation related costs. And the vast bulk of occupational injuries occur when people do operational tasks.

Within the OHS profession we have even done analysis that shows we can express the full cost of injuries as (6 * dollars spent directly on claims) – but do we really understand these costs at the operational task level?

Each injury – at the operational task level – can be said to cost:

  • Medical costs – for treatment of the injured person
  • Workers compensation ‘excess’ payments – the portion you pay before insurance kicks in.
  • Workers compensation ‘claims experience factor’ costs (used in premium calculation)
  • Job delays (including flow-on job delays in some instances)
  • Additional labour to finish the job (overtime or temporary labour)
  • Damage to plant and materials
  • Lost productivity (injured person either totally unfit or fit for suitable duties)
  • Additional labour to replace the lost productivity.
  • Pain and suffering and social costs to the injured person.

Some of these items may be difficult to quantify into actual dollar values but we can see immediately that the costs add up to make a single job cost far more, as a result of an injury, than it would most likely cost to have put sufficient time into preventing the injury in the first place.

Hopefully now we can agree that ‘doing the OHS component properly’ makes good business sense.

But how do we quantify ‘properly’ to justify budgeting for, and spending, extra resources rather than just paying lip service in the end?

I believe the legislation – the OHS LAW – embodies the approach we need to take to this issue. Its called RISK MANAGEMENT.

Basically the higher the LIKELIHOOD of someone being injured, and the worse the CONSEQUENCES might be in terms of degree of injury and damage, the MORE RESOURCE is required to eliminate or reduce the risk.

However, this basic approach fails to highlight the complexities that may affect LIKELIHOOD and CONSEQUENCE as follows:

For any given task LIKELIHOOD may be affected by issues such as:

  • Location of task – confined spaces, heights, proximity to traffic, etc;
  • Environment of task – heat/cold, atmosphere, lighting, physical space, presence of hazardous substances and processes, etc;
  • Nature of task – including plant and substances being used and/or worked on and types of thought and actions required to perform;
  • Actual task process – sequence and complexity of steps, decision making and critical risk points;
  • Qualifications, knowledge, skill and experience (QKSE) of the people doing the task
  • Willingness of people to comply with standards and procedures
  • Capability of people to perform the task (physiology, psychology and emotional make-up at any given point in time – includes shape, size, strength, fatigue levels, visual acuity, dexterity and flexibility, mental acuity and so on);

To explain further:

Task A in location 1 may have higher risk than Task A in location 2
Task A in a hot environment may have higher risk than Task A in ambient temperature
Fred may have higher QKSE for Task A than Jack
Jack may be more willing to follow safe procedure (comply) than Ted.
And so on…

And for any given task the combination of LIKELIHOOD factors, may increase or decrease the CONSEQUENCE outcomes if something does go wrong. Eg: a fall while standing on flat, smooth, clear, floor area will most likely have a lesser consequence than a fall from a 6 foot step ladder in a cluttered office space with desks and chairs and office appliances surrounding the ladder.

Hence to ‘do OHS properly’ we need to apply ‘sufficient time’ to recognise and assess the LIKELIHOOD that an injury could occur and the probable CONSEQUENCE if it does. On this basis simple tasks in purpose built work areas will have lower risks than complex tasks in complex situations. So ‘sufficient time’ will be less for simple task than for complex task.

Next we need to apply sufficient time and resources to implement controls to eliminate or reduce the LIKELIHOOD and CONSEQUENCE to acceptable levels.

At this point we need to recognise that we live and survive safely with some degree of risk in everyday life and so we don’t need to set out to eliminate it. Every one of us will find it acceptable (safe) to cross some roads anywhere. And I may think one location is more acceptable (safe) to cross than you do. But at other locations it will only be acceptable (safe) for both of us to use a pedestrian crossing.

However, to spend less than ‘sufficient’ time and resource on identifying, assessing and controlling risks to an acceptable (safe) level is to invite disaster to strike and for task costs to skyrocket.

I believe that most managers, supervisors and employees have a rudimentary understanding of this process. And yet we still see ‘foreseeable’ accidents occurring with resulting injuries commensurate with the level of LIKELIHOOD and CONSEQUENCE (combined as RISK) that was not properly addressed.

So how do we OPTIMISE task costs while MAXIMISING safety?

We need to develop a management approach – thinking, talking and acting (usually referred to as culture) – that reinforces the concept that ‘doing OHS properly’ is the BEST COST option.

For example:

Don't Do
Cut corners in risk management Take ENOUGH time to understand the task
Omit steps in identifying, assessing and controlling risks Take ENOUGH time to understand the risks
Allow people with inadequate QKSE, compliance or capability to perform a task Use SUFFICIENT resources to control risks to acceptable levels
Accept that ‘near enough is good enough’ INSIST that ‘only good enough is good enough – but best is better’
Accept there is ever a need to ‘take unacceptable risks’ Accept that sometimes we won’t do a job that cannot be made ‘acceptable’

True, in line with the OHS laws, many organisations now require the development of ‘safety documentation’ such as Safe Work Procedures, Safe Work Method Statements, Safe Operating Procedures. And these requirements are admirable and if done well will save time in the long run.

But often the real INITIAL cost of capturing the information that must be documented, and then developing and implementing the risk controls that these documents define, is not adequately assessed and provided for. And then there is the ONGOING cost of regular reviews to keep such documents up to date.

In the same way that the oldest and most senior warriors usually undertake the training of new young men in native tribal systems, we need our most experienced employees to be involved in capturing, recording and reviewing the operational task and associated safety information. But these are also our most productive and cost effective employees. To take them off operational task will result in a SHORT TERM increased business cost.

Supervisors and employees are told they must develop the document, keep it up to date, and do the job, all the while keeping the cost to a minimum. Oftentimes, additional resources will not be provided unless the supervisor or front line manager can write up a business case to justify the additional cost. But they’re so busy managing and supervising the operational task they don’t have the resources to write business cases – even if they had the QKSE to do so. And here we are back at where this article began.

To make sure this ‘properly’ approach can actually be implemented CEOs, MDs, and senior managers need to recognise the reality of these complexities and provide adequate resources (and training) to enable front line managers and supervisors to ‘do OHS properly’, and then require performance from them.

That may mean that we need to record time and materials that are expended on ‘doing OHS’ so that we can accurately recognise the true costs and factor them into our product and service charges. But we if we need to do that to justify the cost then we need to bite the bullet and do it.

Otherwise we run the risk of supervisors just paying lip service and employees taking the risks resulting in the business paying the skyrocketing costs and employees paying the non-financial costs when they put their bodies on the line.

I wonder if such busy people will even read this article right through????

Thank you Les. 🙂

About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

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