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The Shift to SIFs: Reduce serious incidents by tracking Total SIF Exposure

Is recordable rate your organization’s primary key performance indicator for safety?

We have the privilege of speaking to safety professionals across the globe every single day, and we often hear people say, “we worked 1 million hours, and our recordable rate was 1.5, which is well below the industry average. We had a great year! We are a safe company!” This common sentiment, while positive, may be covering up greater issues facing the construction industry.

For many years, safety professionals have promoted recordable rates as a primary metric for benchmarking safety performance. This has led to an industry-wide focus on two frameworks to evaluate recordable rates:

  1. “Is our organization’s recordable rate better than the industry average?”
  2. “Is our organization’s recordable rate improving year over year?”

These questions are important to answer, and the focus on them has certainly contributed to the reduction in the overall rate of injuries over time. However, it must be noted that while the average recordable rate has drastically declined, the number of fatalities has remained relatively flat.


In this article, we will explore some reasons why the focus on recordable rate has not necessarily made the industry safer in terms of reducing more serious injuries and exposures.

What is recordable rate?

A recordable incident, or “recordable”, is defined by OSHA as a work-related injury or illness that results in any of the following: death, days away from work, restricted work or transfer to another job, medical treatment beyond first aid, loss of consciousness, or if it involves a significant injury or illness diagnosed by a licensed health-care professional. 

The recordable rate, also known as total recordable incident rate (TRIR), is the number of recordables per 100 full-time workers per year. It is calculated by dividing the number of injuries and illnesses by the total number of hours worked in the given year and multiplying by 200,000, where 200,000 represents 100 full-time employees working 40 hours per week for 50 weeks. In the construction industry, the average recordable rate in 2021 was 2.5. Industry average recordable rates are published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics each year. Companies review the most recently published rates to benchmark themselves against their peers.

The risk of focusing on recordable rate

There is value in tracking and benchmarking against recordable rates. But, after evaluating their recordable rate, most organizations only look at the industry average and percentage of yearly improvement. Too often, organizations assume that because something didn’t happen in the past, it won’t happen in the future. But recordables only explain part of the story. Consider the following questions: 

Can a project with a high recordable rate be a ‘safe’ project? 

Can a project with a low recordable rate be an ‘at-risk’ project?

The answer to both of these questions is “yes”, yet many organizations equate a low recordable rate with operating safely. This is so widely believed that EHS professionals are met with confusion if they suggest otherwise.

To better understand the overall safety performance of an individual project or organization we need to evangelize a more comprehensive picture of risk. Organizations should look at exposures such as unsafe conditions or behaviors that had the potential to result in a serious injury or fatality (SIF).

Shift to SIF Exposures

According to the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), a Serious Injury or Fatality or SIF is an incident that results in a fatality, a life-threatening injury, or a life-altering injury or permanent disability. Fortunately, only a small number of recordable incidents actually result in a SIF.

While the term SIF has become somewhat familiar in the construction industry, it hasn’t yet transformed into a metric that is systematically tracked as a key performance indicator (KPI). OSHA does require that actual SIFs are tracked and recorded, and organizations already recognize the importance of conducting full investigations into these cases. But what most teams fail to track and evaluate are the recordable incidents, near misses, and other exposures that had SIF Potential (SIF-P). These incidents do not typically receive anywhere near the same level of attention as an actual SIF. Yet, from a safety and risk perspective, the exposure warrants the same rigorous investigation as an actual SIF event.

This is why improving data collection and reporting is the first step to understanding and quantifying a company’s Total SIF Exposure.

How to Evaluate Total SIF Exposure

Consider the following when evaluating total SIF exposure.

  1. Incidents that resulted in a SIF
  2. Recordable incidents with SIF potential
  3. Near misses with SIF potential
  4. Observations of exposures with SIF potential

Situations can be deemed to have SIF potential if they contain SIF Precursors. According to the ASSP, a SIF Precursor can be defined as an unmitigated high-risk situation that will result in a serious or fatal injury if allowed to continue.

A proper evaluation of total SIF exposure answers three questions:

  1. Was there a high-risk exposure?
    • Example: An employee was exposed to a 15’ fall.

  2. Was there a failure to follow established procedures and implement controls?

    • Example: A fall protection program was in place, the employee and foreman had been trained, and equipment was available to implement controls, but controls were absent.

  3. Was the activity allowed to continue? 

    • Example: The exposure continued until a project team member intervened.

Answering these three questions allows you to determine if an exposure had SIF potential or not. To calculate total SIF exposure, you can add up each individual exposure with SIF potential.

Here’s an example of each type of exposure. 


A worker becomes trapped when the unsupported walls of a 7’ deep trench collapse. Rescue crews arrive and extract the worker, but the worker does not survive.


An employee is struck in the forearm by material that fell from above. The employee’s forearm is fractured, but the employee will recover fully. It is found that the material that fell from above was not stacked securely.


The walls of a 7’ deep trench, where employees were working, but have exited, collapsed. Further investigation revealed the walls were not supported properly. 


Two workers are observed working in a 7’ deep trench where the trench walls are not supported or sloped to prevent possible cave-ins. The workers are removed from the trench, the hazard is addressed, and proper controls are put in place before work continues.

How can tracking SIF potential improve safety?

Investigating incidents, conditions, and behaviors with SIF potential provides the opportunity to gain better visibility into the real risks on your projects. Identifying SIF potential allows teams to answer more meaningful questions that drive improvement, such as:

  • When are SIF exposures occurring (phases of projects, scopes of work, etc.)?

  • Why are SIF exposures occurring (planning failures, lack of training, poor change management, etc.)? 

  • Who is involved in SIF exposures (direct employees, trade partners, specific job titles)? 


Organizations should continue to track their recordable rate and strive to reduce the frequency of all injuries. But recordable rate alone does not provide a comprehensive picture of project safety and organizational risks. We know that what gets measured improves. We only need to look at the dramatic improvements in recordable rate to emphasize this point. Tracking SIF-potential events and exposures and making SIF prevention and planning a daily focus are important next steps in making the construction industry safer. Until then, we will struggle to meaningfully reduce SIFs.

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David Tibbetts

David Tibbetts is the Chief Safety Officer at Highwire. Prior to joining Highwire David managed the Construction Safety Program at Harvard University overseeing the implementation of the University's Construction EH&S Standard, Substance Abuse Prevention Program, and use of Highwire's Contractor Safety Assessment Program.

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