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Serious Injury and Fatality Prevention

The first is that organizations with BBS processes are continuing to see serious injuries and fatal incidents occur. And second, that much of the world is experiencing this epidemic, but at a much higher frequency than the United States and Europe. There is an important safety issue facing organizations seeking world class employee safety.

The last 30 years have seen steady improvement in job safety for the average American worker. Increased leadership commitment has advanced job safety from a situational priority to a corporate value. Organizations have discovered that safety is good business.

Employee injury costs historically have not been calculated or incorporated into strategic planning. Now there is a ground-swell of awareness about the direct and indirect costs of employee injury. Job safety is a competitive advantage and a precursor to profitability.

Stockholders, state and federal agencies, and the public at large have become aware of the need for organizations to be social responsible and committed to the well being of their employees. It has become as much of a hot button as environmental issues.

Behavior Based Safety (BBS) came along about 25 years ago and accelerated job safety dramatically. BBS redistributed the accountability for job safety from the Safety Manager to everyone on site. BBS could as well be called "Participative Safety," because similar to TQM, Six Sigma, and Lean Principles, BBS empowers all levels of management and workers to become involved in injury prevention.

Although the unions rebelled against the idea that employee "behavior" was a primary cause of employee injury, the fact is that addressing employee job behavior has steadily decreased incidence and injuries worldwide. The unions had a valid point relative to the misinterpretation many organizations had about how BBS fit into their other safety management tools. BBS is just that, one tool in the many that are necessary to create a safe environment. Engineering, equipment safety design, control measures, leadership and management, job design and much more are all necessary and important and cannot be ignored.

Injury rates have decreased over the last two decades, but serious injuries and fatalities have not. A few dedicated experts have examined this discrepancy closely and arrived at some eye-opening conclusions. One is that history-based probability estimates do not provide us with an accurate risk assessment of high-gravity hazards. The likelihood of a serious injury or fatality predicted by these data is not reliable.

Most importantly, most injuries are not invariably the cause of unsafe acts. It is known that certain circumstances increase the risk of severe injury. When the worker is performing unusual or non-routine work, where sources of high energy are present, and during facility construction activities, to name a few.

Work situations identified as having high portions of serious injury precursors include process instability, significant process upsets, unexpected maintenance, unexpected changes, high energy potential jobs, emergency shutdown procedures, operation of mobile equipment (and interaction with pedestrians), confined space entry, jobs that require lock-out tag-out, lifting operations, working at height, working beneath heavy loads, and manual handling.

OSHA high and low accident frequency injury data is not predictive of the risk of serious injuries or fatalities. Factors that are related to serious injuries and fatalities include:

  • Failure to recognize precursor events
  • Lack of effective pre-job planning and risk analysis
  • Use of low level controls against high risk
  • Ineffective inspections and audits
  • Poor learning from flawed incident investigation techniques
  • Failure to effectively implement Management of Change processes
  • Failure to recognize and address latent system weaknesses
  • Human error

The mindset shared by those reexamining the causes of serious injuries and fatalities prompted the re-visitation of traditional thinking about many aspects of safety management. A robust perspective on aspects of hazard analysis has evolved. The number and severity of hazards related to specific tasks is now being emphasized.

Human factors are being scrutinized more closely and several factors are garnering attention as probable precursors to serious injury and fatality. There appears to be several interrelated influences that may heighten the probability that an individual may inadvertently put himself or herself at risk.

Distraction, lost concentration, inattention - have been associated with injury risk for a long time. It is now evident that there is a variance between individuals in regards to their ability to focus. There is variability in terms of intensity of focus, duration, and distractibility - how easily their attention can be diverted from the task at hand.

Given that a person has the neurological capability to maintain task focus and on any changing conditions around them that might introduce an unanticipated hazard into the situation, there are research based methods that can help people to achieve higher levels of focus on the job. Transcendental Meditation is being used by Fortune 100 companies to increase employee focus (often referred to as mindfulness). The results of mindfulness training have documented higher levels of productivity, quality, and safety.

One of the most important areas of research targets individual commitment to safety. For decades the field of safety has attempted to motivate employees to take personal responsibility for safety. A barrier to achieving this level of commitment was the fact that safety directors and safety managers were held accountable for safety; it was seen as their job, not as everyone's job.

Behavior Based Safety (BBS) brought in participative safety and institutionalized the idea that safety was everyone's job. In spite of notable and widespread successes, supervisors and managers still have to manage individual job safety behavior. The missing factor was personal commitment. BBS does not ensure that each employee will assume personal responsibility for themselves and their co-workers. In many cases, even with BBS, employees behave safely because the boss says to, not because they want to.

Personal commitment to safety ensures that employees will behave optimally in regard to the safety management system provided by the organization. A Chicago based psychologist, Daniel Moran, has worked for many years in the area of personal commitment. His commitment training helps employees develop a personal commitment to safety by taking them through a series of exercises during which they examine their personal values and the commitments derived from them.

Dr. Moran's work supports a common sense reality that appears as an epiphany to employees as they go through his exercises: My safety is important to me because the things I value most in my life - family, home, security - are all dependent upon my wellness. The data have demonstrated that this single awareness creates a renewed level of personal motivation and personal commitment to working safely on the job.

To decrease serious injuries and fatalities, we know that personal commitment is one piece of the puzzle. BBS, organizational factors, leadership, human factors, hazard analysis, and incident investigation all need to be revisited in light of the fact that we now know that reducing minor injuries is not predictive of reduced risks for serious injuries and fatalities.

The importance of continued analysis and the recognition that we have yet to identify the causal factors and the controls to reduce serious injuries and fatalities, should provide the safety community with the motivation to accept the challenge of revisiting assumptions and challenging them.