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Factors That Impact Safety Performance: How to Achieve and Sustain Excellent Performance [Part 1]

By Jim Klein, PrincipAL engineer

Factors that Impact Safety Performance - Part 1

The primary goal of effective safety programs is excellent performance. This is accomplished through a strong and continued commitment by everyone in an organization to achieve zero injuries, zero significant harmful events and zero environmental harm.

Other program goals also come into play such as “no one gets hurt,” positive rather than negative business impact, and employees striving to be good corporate citizens and community members. Sounds great, but how feasible is this? Many companies have achieved sustained excellent performance while some have not. Even good companies with strong safety programs sometimes have lapses. The reality is that people make mistakes and equipment can fail unexpectedly.

Jim Klein, Principal Engineer, ABS GroupJim Klein, Principal Engineer


Human error can be anticipated and prevented, or possible effects mitigated. Equipment can be designed appropriately and maintained correctly, and potential failures can be anticipated and safeguarded.


Ultimately, excellent safety performance requires continuous focus, dedication and perseverance by management and employees who take purposeful actions to implement, improve and sustain effective safety practices. But what factors most impact safety performance, and how can they be used to achieve and sustain excellent performance?

Safety Performance

Safety performance is sometimes summarized as “our injury and incident performance has been excellent,” but there are two issues with this view.

First, injury and incident statistics are lagging metrics, representing events that have already occurred rather than helping identify problems before they can lead to more serious injuries and incidents (i.e., leading metrics). Because serious injuries and incidents are infrequent, these indicators do not provide a true measurement of how a safety program may be performing day-to-day. Are there problems that may be leading to a higher risk of future injury? How would facility personnel know?

Second, while injury statistics are obviously important, they may not provide an adequate measurement of how well safety program requirements are being met. Part of the question is, "performance of what?" For example, injury statistics, such as lost-workday injuries, generally do not provide a clear view of process safety performance. In an investigation following a refinery fire and explosion (CSB, 2007), it was determined that “reliance on injury rates significantly hindered... perception of process risk” (BP U.S. Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel, 2007).

This can be true for many aspects of safety programs. Is PPE worn correctly and at the right times? Are safe work practices (e.i., confined space entry, hot work, electrical lockout) followed and correctly completed every time? Are procedural shortcuts frequent?


Injury and incident statistics do not reveal the whole picture, thus providing management with an incomplete view of safety program performance.


How to Establish Program Goals and Shortcomings

A better definition of performance relates to executing safety program requirements and systems with the intent of achieving program goals and objectives. Program goals should include:

  1. Prevention of serious injuries and incidents
  2. Use of other leading and lagging indicators to measure the functioning and effectiveness of safety program activities to provide early warning of possible problems.

Like medical professionals who routinely measure vital signs such as blood pressure and cholesterol for early warning of potential health problems, appropriate goals and metrics should be established, monitored and responded to by accountable facility personnel to monitor overall injury and safety program performance. Examples from a process safety perspective include failing to:

  1. Document and assess changes to process equipment
  2. Conduct equipment tests and inspections on the required schedules can greatly increase the risk of process-related injuries and incidents.

Appropriate metrics should be provided to help ensure that management system requirements are being followed. While excellent performance can be demonstrated to some extent using lagging metrics such as past injury statistics, ultimately excellent future performance can typically only be pursued using appropriate goals and both leading and lagging metrics. For some safety professionals, a statement such as “we haven’t had an injury for years” can be a red flag for possible complacency and future problems.


Key Questions of Safety Performance

  • What is the current level of performance?
  • Is performance trending better, about the same, or worse?
  • How can performance be improved?

The answers to these questions are obviously highly specific to company or facility safety goals based on the hazards and risks that may be present as well as management priorities (Klein, 2020; Klein & Vaughen, 2017).

While assessing current performance seems straightforward, serious injuries and incidents are (hopefully) rare, and therefore performance should also be assessed in terms of conformance to safety program requirements. But safety programs and needs differ, and what may be considered excellent performance at one company may not be at another, based on the goals and leading and lagging metrics that have been established. Some companies may also believe they have excellent performance, but relative to industry standards and regulatory expectations, performance may not be as good as believed. Both internal and external measurements should be considered when evaluating process safety performance. Facilities must, at a minimum, be aware of industry standards and best practices for comparison and should benchmark operating results with other facilities and companies when possible.

Measuring current performance is the starting point on the performance axis shown in Figure 1. The current status is important because if a company currently has excellent performance, its main goal is to maintain and improve on that high level. If a company has poor performance, it should set goals and provide resources for more significant improvement.

The second question regarding the direction of performance trends is more difficult. Several possible trends are possible, and unexpected events can lead to rapid change for better or worse. When continued attention to safety program performance is not maintained, slow degradation of performance is likely, as shown in Figure 1, and must be guarded against.

Figure 1. Safety performance is likely to slowly get worse with time unless specific systematic improvement activities are made per local needs
Figure 1. Safety performance is likely to slowly get worse with time unless specific systematic improvement activities are made per local needs.

Potential causes include:

  • Lack of a core value for safety (e.g., competing priorities degrade leadership priority for safety vs. financial and other factors)
  • Lack of a sense of vulnerability (e.g., complacency following a period without significant injuries)
  • Lack of awareness of degradation (e.g., inadequate monitoring through leading metrics or audits)

Conversely, improved performance over time (based on local facility needs) can be achieved by:

  • Systematic attention to safety performance/improvement with management leadership for effective safety programs
  • Goal setting with appropriate metrics
  • Empowering personnel with the provision of appropriate resources

The rate of improvement will vary according to:

  • Initial starting point – is current performance good or bad?
  • Degree of focus on improvement, based on factors discussed in the next section


Examination of two questions – “What is our current performance?” and “Is it getting better or worse?” – is essential for considering the third question – “How can performance be improved?”


A model of important factors that impact performance and help answer this question is discussed in Part 2 (coming soon).

  1. U.S. Chemical Safety Board, "Refinery Explosion and Fire", Report No. 2005-04-I-TX, 2007
  2. "The Report of the BP U.S. Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel", 2007
  3. J. A. Klein and B. K. Vaughen, Process Safety: Key Concepts and Practical Approaches, CRC Press, 2017
  4. J. A. Klein, "Sustaining Effective Process Sefety Programs in CPI Facilities", Chemical Engineering, pp. 24-29, Feb. 2020
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