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Preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities in Non-Routine Activities

Safety programs are more successful at reducing minor injuries than serious injuries or fatalities. Safety professionals are turning their attention to this frustrating phenomenon – overall, the rate of recordable injuries is declining, but the rate of serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) is essentially flat. Interestingly, organizations that experience SIFs often have low recordable injury rates.

How can this be? One answer is that the causes of SIFs, and the situations in which they occur, are different than those of minor injuries. SIFs occur most often during Non-Routine Activities. Non-Routine activities are potentially dangerous activities that are performed infrequently, such as working in confined space, working with high voltage, working at heights, moving heavy objects, performing maintenance during shutdowns, or retooling.

How can we encourage safe behavior during potentially dangerous Non-Routine Activities? First we need to recognize the risk associated with Non-Routine Activities; this means that planning and preparation are extremely important. Unfamiliar tasks should be a red flag for risk that increases our vigilance and focus. If the task requires more than one person, close communication between each person is essential. Rehearsing each person’s role and the timing and coordination of task activities is required.

To have an impact on the behaviors in Non-Routine Activities we have to modify standard BBS practices because Non-Routine Activities are unique in several ways:

    1. Non-Routine Activities are, by definition, performed infrequently, so an organization may have been lucky and had no incidents of this type in the past. Thus, even though a Non-Routine Activity is dangerous, there may be no historical data to indicate the specific behaviors that put the performer at the most risk.
    2. Because Non-Routine Activities are performed infrequently, frequent observations of job behaviors have not been performed.
    3. Some Non-Routine Activities, such as working in confined space or working at heights, may make it physically awkward or impossible for an observer to accompany the performer to observe the behavior directly.
    4. The preparatory behavior before a Non-Routine Activity may be just as important as the behavior during the activity. For example, the pre-task behaviors before working with high voltage or toxic chemicals may be as necessary for safety as the behaviors during the task.

Therefore, addressing the safety of Non-Routine Activities requires different approaches than traditional BBS.

The first step is to identify Non-Routine Activities at your site that have SIF potential. As mentioned above, you cannot rely on data alone. You must also rely on judgment. Which Non-Routine Activities are occurring at your particular site that could potentially cause serious injuries? Sites will vary; what is routine at one site could be non-routine at another. Interviews, focus groups, and workshops may be helpful. With your Safety Steering Committee, agree on a final list of Non-Routine Activities.

For each Non-Routine Activity, identify its safe behaviors and procedures. Each Non-Routine Activity will of course require different safe procedures. The safe procedures for working in a confined space, moving a heavy object, or installing new equipment are all different from each other. For each Non-Routine Activity, identify subject matter experts to help define the potential hazards and safe procedures. Each procedure should include an observation checklist with pinpointed, observable behaviors.

As a general rule, the observation-and-feedback approach for a Non-Routine Activity is that an associate and observer together complete a pre-activity procedure checklist. The associate follows the preparatory instructions on the checklist, such as obtaining any special PPE or tools, discussing with the observer what could go wrong and identifying actions to reduce these risks, making sure that emergency equipment is on the scene and working, and so forth. The observer determines whether the associate has adequately prepared and is ready to proceed.

After the activity, the associate and observer debrief to identify whether the procedures were sufficient to handle the activity, and if any tools or steps were missing. They want to determine how well the associate performed the safe behaviors, and if any unexpected events occurred. It is extremely important to document each Non-Routine Activity to educate and inform future performers and observers.

It is important to note that a behavioral Non-Routine Activity program has a different “look and feel” than a standard BBS program. A BBS program involves frequent observations with mostly positive feedback, and the observed associate’s name is not recorded. A Non-Routine Activity program has infrequent observation (because the Activity is infrequent), is not anonymous (because the associate applies in advance to perform the Activity), and the feedback may sometimes be negative (because the observer has the responsibility to say no to the Activity if the associate is not adequately prepared).

In summary:

  1. Identify the hazardous Non-Routine Activities in your department, site, or work setting and create a checklist of critical behaviors and procedures.
  2. Select specific associates as Non-Routine Activity observers – associates that can ensure that all the critical behaviors and procedures are followed in the pre-activity preparation and execution phases of the work.
  3. After the work is completed, have a formal debrief between the Non-Routine Activity observer and the performer(s). Identify problem and improvement opportunities. Debrief findings with the Safety Committee.
  4. Communicate findings to all supervisors and associates. The continued analysis and review of hazardous tasks and procedures encourages all associates to look more closely at their jobs and the hazards associated with their work.