B is for benchmarking

In the middle ages cobblers notched their worktops with the size of a customer’s foot, so that while working on a new shoe they could check it against the mark on their bench – against the benchmark.

Lexicon - B is for benchmarking
Image credit: ©iStock/Ksenia Palimski

EU-OSHA’s 2015 Review of Successful Occupational Safety and Health Benchmarking Initiatives (bit.ly/2GgWSOo) defines benchmarking as “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 safety and health law and/or cut compliance costs”.

The Annex A guidance to the new OSH management system standard ISO 45001 places emphasis on benchmarking not merely as a means to achieve compliance but as a way to identify opportunities to improve.

“Zero harm” is a vision, not a benchmark. Organisations that wish to progress towards that vision need to look not just at accident statistics and health surveillance, but also at process indicators, such as air quality measurements, training attended, or preventive maintenance completed.

It is tempting to measure that which is easy to count. Even with process indicators, ISO 45001 focuses on quantitative benchmarks, giving the example of percentage corrective actions completed on time. But benchmarks don’t have to be numbers or percentages.

Even if we don’t call it that, our shared benchmark is compliance with the law. But scoring your organisation’s compliance is less useful than knowing what you can do to improve. According to EU-OSHA, “benchmarking schemes with requirements to collect performance data are less attractive to members than those involving the sharing of good OSH practice”.

Counting process indicators has a further flaw. Can you prove that more training courses, more audits or more risk assessments make the workplace safer? Benchmarking best practice, rather than counting, might have more face validity with those you need to engage in the process.

Who you choose depends on what you want to benchmark. If the problem is machine guarding, you’ll need to find organisations using similar equipment; if the problem is the quality of risk assessments, you’ll have a broader choice. Larger organisations might benchmark between their own sites, which overcomes commercial concerns, but can still lead to friction.

Even with the right benchmark and the right benchmarking partners, the final pitfall is complacency if you find you are doing better than others

The easiest benchmarks are publicly available. This includes national accident statistics, particularly if they can be viewed by industry or type of injury. Guidance and codes of practice, such as those from regulators and trade bodies, provide a qualitative benchmark of process.

Because of commercial confidentiality or fear of reputation damage, the best benchmark information might not be widely available, leading trade associations and other sector groups to form benchmarking clubs. EU-OSHA’s report found these were more successful if participants felt “a trusted neutral broker” was collecting the information.

Andrew Griffiths, head of health and safety at charity The Prince’s Trust, began a benchmarking exercise while working for another not-for-profit organisation. The representatives from several charities met several times, but “found that sharing data was complex”. Griffiths says: “It required a lot of data conversion and normalisation to be able to compare each party’s information. For example, we had different definitions for an ‘adverse event’.”

Some benchmarking co-ordinators, such as the Universities Safety and Health Association and the Paper and Board Industry Advisory Committee are specific to a sector; others, such as VRM  (www.virtualriskmanager.net), work across any industry but focus on one topic (in this case, fleet safety). Others work across sectors and topics. The Safety, Health and Environment Intra Industry Benchmarking Association (www.sheiiba.com) enables paying and contributing members to share qualitative data, while Onsite Insights (onsiteinsights.co.uk) arranges visits to share good practice and innovation in a range of business areas, including safety and health.

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) backed the Corporate Health and Safety Performance Index (CHaSPI) from 2006 to 2012 as a free, web-based benchmarking system providing a common measure of OSH performance across sectors. Many organisations found CHaSPI useful as a gap analysis tool but they were reluctant to share even anonymised results with others. CHaSPI never reached a critical mass of information, without which quantitative benchmarking activities are not seen as valuable by prospective participants.

Even with the right benchmark and the right benchmarking partners, the final pitfall is complacency if you find you are doing better than others. As ISO 45001 makes clear, benchmarking is part of continuous improvement. Or as a now-withdrawn HSE publication Health and Safety Benchmarking: improving together stated: “Benchmarking is a means to an end, not an end in itself.”



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  

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