We need better evidence to help protect people at work

Understanding what works to protect people at work needs better use of evidenceWe make decisions at work every day and for those in complex roles or in fast-changing situations, it can feel like a continuous process. In business, of course, the choices we make can have a significant impact on the bottom line and, more importantly, our people, the environment and the communities we’re operating in. With so much riding on what we choose to do, our decision-making processes must be designed to maximise our chances of successful outcomes. This is especially so when our decisions involve how to protect people at work so can be literally a matter of life or death.

So, how do we achieve this? Few would argue against the assertion that the quality of decisions is enhanced by accurate and relevant information, including evidence of which approaches to the task in hand actually work. Indeed, this was the fundamental principle behind the formation in the UK a decade ago of the first ‘What Works’ centres.

The idea of these centres was simple; busy people make better decisions when they have access to the best available knowledge about what works. Backed by government and industry, evidence repositories emerged for policymakers, public servants and the wider public. These centres, in areas including crime and health, translate research into products for use by professionals, for example a crime reduction toolkit for the College of Policing. They have looked to fill gaps in our knowledge and also take different approaches to filling those evidence gaps.

This focus on evidence-based decision-making was widely applauded and accepted as the future. It is clear, however, that people must have the knowledge and skills to be able to know evidence when they see it, evaluate it and then use it in practice. Using evidence to inform decision making requires thoughtful planning and in one area, we have found organisations not always investing the time and resource in getting it right.


What evidence?

Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the US-based National Safety Council (NSC) commissioned research institute RAND Europe to investigate the state of evidence in occupational safety and health (OSH). We wanted to know what evidence was available, who was using it and what they were using it for. Ultimately, we wanted to know how the evidence was being translated into actionable insights and put into practice.

Based on the published literature, surveys and interviews with safety and health practitioners, the research team found a number of factors impacted on the ability of an organisation to use the evidence it had gathered effectively. These included:

• how the evidence was communicated to target groups
• industry and organisational cultures
• the size of the organisation
• values and capability of senior management and workers
• the regulatory framework in the organisation’s location

The researchers found no single definition of evidence in ‘the OSH space’, but numerous examples were provided by stakeholders of what they considered to be evidence, such as academic publications, expert opinion, accident/incident reports, audit reports, big data and safety analytics, biomarker data, cultural assessments, performance metrics and workforce consultation.

Channels for sharing the evidence were many and varied too, from OSH websites and social media to podcasts, webinars and academic journals, and there are multiple actors involved in the evidence lifecycle, each with their own objectives for using the information. The evidence was being used variously to decide which safety and health guidelines to follow, how to recruit and allocate staff, how to deliver safety training and how to introduce new safety policies or develop existing ones.

However, the research team also found problems encountered by the actors in their use of the evidence. The quality and relatability of the information was often poor and it was often in short supply. “Evidence is usually quite thin on the ground … It’s sometimes exceptional to find something that’s directly related to what you want,” said one interviewee.

Evidence can be lost in translation during its life cycle from source to decision making, found the research team. ‘Supervisors, leaders and managers often do not possess OSH expertise but are nevertheless responsible for making safety decisions,’ says the report, The role of evidence in occupational safety and health.


A complex picture

In sum, researchers painted a picture of a ‘complex, fragmented’ ecosystem of evidence in occupational safety and health. This, remember, is the use of information in a field that is critical to protecting people from work-related injuries and illness. Needless to say, not knowing what works best when your aim is to keep your people safe and healthy exposes employers to potentially devastating costs, human and financial.

In conclusion, the RAND Europe team called for greater investment in safety and health knowledge translation and for a greater focus in business on the promotion of a positive safety culture among all workers.

To date, Lloyd’s Register Foundation has funded a range of short-term projects seeking to understand how evidence is used in workplace safety and health, and what that evidence is telling us. These commissions have given us a pipeline of findings and recommendations from which some consistent themes are emerging that demonstrate the need for a ‘What Works’ approach:

• We need better data collection to understand the scale of challenges, causation and the effectiveness of interventions
• Better monitoring and evaluation practice is needed to understand the effectiveness of safety programmes
• There is a disconnect between academic groups in safety and practitioners who can influence safety outcomes
• Practical tools are needed to apply research findings

The next stage is to more fully understand the potential impact that a What Works approach might have on safety. We have asked RAND Europe to conduct a feasibility study that will explore how a centre could achieve and evaluate impact.

We envisage a What Works centre that becomes a global focal point for evidence-based thinking and decision making in safety. The centre would put users, practitioners and wider stakeholders at the heart of what it does, to get their input to identify priorities, their perspectives on the safety challenges, and to understand how decisions are made and what information would help them make better choices.

RAND’s findings will be used to inform decisions within the Foundation on whether to proceed with a proposal for the full What Works centre. And yes: our decisions will be based on the best available evidence.