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October 25, 2018
NSC 2018: Former OSHA head researching link between safety, business success
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

At the 2018 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress & Expo, Dr. David Michaels, the former head of OSHA and a professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health, copresented a session with Colin Duncan, CEO of Soteris Group, in which the pair highlighted the need for empirical research into the causal relationship between workplace safety and operational performance.

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During the session, titled The Impact of Safety on Operational Performance, Michaels emphasized that throughout his tenure as the head of OSHA, he heard many case stories about organizations that improved their safety performance—often following a fatality or other serious incident—and subsequently saw gains in other areas of the business, such as quality and productivity. However, Michaels noted, “catastrophes can’t be the impetus to convince CEOs to prioritize safety; the cost is too high.” Thus, the benefits of a strong safety program must be highlighted in terms that CEOs are naturally driven to prioritize—organizational success, quality or productivity improvements, or other key business metrics.

Despite the anecdotal evidence, however, there is little methodologically sound, data-driven research that seeks to determine whether a true causal relationship exists between these areas. Some consultants claim to cite research, stated Michaels, but it tends to be primarily case study or conceptually oriented, not validated or peer-reviewed. In addition, there is little research on what constitutes an effective intervention and a lack of consensus on how to define a successful outcome.

The research need is clear, Michaels indicated, not only because of the limitations of the existing scholarship, but also because workplace injury rates have plateaued over the last several years, and fatal and serious injuries are on the rise.

Through their newly founded Workplace Safety and Health Management Research Unit at George Washington University, Michaels and Duncan seek to go beyond the anecdotal and correlational information that dominates the field. They are seeking input from stakeholders in the field to help determine specific research paths to pursue and assistance from industry partners in funding that research.

Their broad research objectives include:

  • Understanding the types of programs and policies that achieve the greatest success in terms of safety and operational excellence
  • Examining human performance and its impact on safety and organizational success
  • Establishing the value derived from effective EHS management programs
  • Performing a factorial study of correlations between EHS programs and operational improvement programs
  • Mapping a causative relationship between safety and operational performance
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