Knowing how you are performing relative to others can be a useful tool for improving your health and safety process. Mark Preston explains how it works and shows you how you can get started

Benchmarking – a planned process by which an organisation compares its health and safety processes and performance with others to learn how to reduce accidents and ill health, improve compliance with health and safety law and/or cut compliance costs.

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

How’s everybody doing? How are we doing? How does what we are doing compare with what everybody else is doing? Could we be doing better? Welcome to benchmarking.

Benchmarking can be carried out within an organisation between departments, sites or divisions. It can be carried out across industry and can provide a good measurement of how an organisation, or department is performing when it comes to managing health and safety.

One of the dangers of benchmarking is that it recognises those doing well, whilst isolating those that are at the other end of the scale, leading to staff trying to manipulate information to improve their results.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at work (EU-OSHA) has recently undertaken an extensive review of occupational safety and health benchmarking schemes throughout Europe to assess the benefits that such schemes can deliver and has shown that the benefits of benchmarking schemes are great. But what influences how successful such schemes can be?

Whilst the survey responses indicated that a wide variety of factors influence success, data requirements emerged as a key factor. Benchmarking schemes that need to collect performance data were seen as less attractive than those that involved the sharing of good health and safety practice. Reporting accidents and incidents can be seen as a sensitive issue, with some organisations being reluctant to share such information. From an individual organisation point of view this can also be difficult if the benchmarking process only relies on measuring such statistics. One way round this is to have anonymity when reporting such incidents.

Focusing on features likely to be of most value to members is likely to lead to greater participation and success, although this should not preclude collection of data that may be of benefit, especially if it is key to tracking progress. It was interesting to see in the report that several of the research interviewees discussed the importance of networking as instrumental in creating relationships of trust and collaboration to enable benchmarking schemes to be successful.

It is also important to make any targets ambitious but realistic. Many participants prefer to focus on processes rather than outcomes because organisations and departments will progress at different rates and practical examples of best practice are seen as highly valued.

Use of the phrases ‘good practice’ or ‘best practice’ should be considered carefully. Through its benchmarking activities, the ArcelorMittal Group, based in Luxembourg, found that a message of ‘good practice’ rather than ‘best practice’ was often more beneficial, as it was seen as offering guidance rather than imposing prescriptive procedures.

There are several industry benchmarking schemes already in place. A lot of organisations that Cardinus deals with are looking at ways of benchmarking within their own organisation. Many of the findings in the OSHA report can be used to help in-house benchmarking schemes.

There is no doubt that benchmarking has a very important place in safety management and whilst not all organisations can or wish to join external benchmarking schemes they should look at ways that they can measure safety management performance in a way that helps that performance improve.

How to set up your own benchmarking scheme

Basic set up aspects

1.            Topic area and vision

Do not try to cover too many aspects, keep the topic area simple to start with and have a vision or tangible outcome to justify involvement in the scheme for busy staff. What would success look like?

2.            Leaders

While the organisation needs support from senior management, experience often shows that having a ‘neutral broker’ or certainly someone who is trusted by all participants is vital. Trust is key in obtaining accurate information and to get participants’ buy-in to any scheme. Within an organisation it can be a big disadvantage to have a manager with a high-profile role being seen as an enforcer.

3.            Regulators

Arrangements should be in place as to how the benchmarking scheme will be developed and run. What are the initial and possibly long-term time scales and goals?

4.            Use of health and safety performance criteria

While you need to be careful in identifying criteria, there needs to be some agreement as to what these are. Are the goals ultimately to reduce accidents/incidents? Look at what criteria needs to be measured to achieve this. Look also at developing risk assessments, inspections and training, agreeing and sharing good practice.

5.            Size of group

Does the group size represent key elements of the organisation without becoming too large to organise efficiently?

6.            Maintaining Momentum

Management and administration. This is obviously a job that not many busy employees will want to do, so this should be agreed at the start with adequate provision made regarding minutes, reports, analysis etc.

Securing commitment from the top. No benchmarking or cultural change scheme will work without commitment from the top of any organisation, this is key, along with trust, that senior management support the activities.

Disseminating benchmarking data. Decide how this will be done, the information that will be supplied and who will receive it. Once data has been disseminated, what are the rules regarding how it is used? Remember, keeping that trust going is vital.

Celebrating Success. Ultimately how does the organisation celebrate any success it has? Achievements should be publicised and, hopefully, recognised by senior management.

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