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Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Serious event prevention

What a new study tells leaders about safety’s past – and its future

January 1, 2012

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Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Beginning with this issue of Safety+Health, and throughout 2012, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to achieve world-class safety performance.

Serious injury and fatality (Sif) prevention has long been considered a matter of numbers. Reduce “smaller” events and you also will reduce more serious ones. As organizations became better at preventing injuries, no one was surprised when the rate of recordable injuries declined. What was surprising, however, was that over the same time, the rate of serious injuries and fatalities remained flat or even increased. So what happened?

A study released in 2011 has helped shed light on the apparent disparity – and the findings are challenging some of safety’s core assumptions. Jointly undertaken by organizations such as Exxon Mobil Corp., PotashCorp, Shell, BHP Billiton, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Maersk, researchers sought to inform a new model for serious-event prevention. Findings showed two primary reasons why fewer less-serious injuries do not necessarily create a proportionate reduction in SIFs. First, the causes and correlations of SIF events usually are different than those of less-serious injuries. Second, the potential for serious injury is low for the majority (about 80 percent) of non-SIF injuries.

In other words, traditional safety efforts often fail to address SIFs because they are not designed to.

While it will take some time to fully unpack the meaning of these findings, there are several immediate implications for safety leaders:

Understanding SIFs is more complex than previously thought. Industry has long relied on Heinrich’s safety triangle as an accurate depiction of the relationship between types of injuries. While it turns out that the model is accurate descriptively (less severe injuries do occur more frequently than more severe injuries), it is not accurate predictively (there is not a constant ratio between injury types, as some people assert). In a similar way, other assumptions about accident causation (it is either “technical failure” or “human error”) or metrics (e.g., low injury rates indicate safety generally is well-managed) are proving to be oversimplified, inaccurate and, often, downright harmful.

We need a new perspective. Serious events are not random, as is commonly assumed. Certain situations trigger, precede or cause SIFs – and these precursors are embedded in the way work is done. The problem is, most organizations do not have consistent visibility of this data; precursors often are buried in the data sets of recordable injuries and near misses, and their significance is not apparent without a longitudinal (over time) study.

Prevention initiatives need to be multidimensional. Treating all exposures equally, while well-intended, does not make sense when roughly 80 percent of injuries represent low-severity potential. Focusing sufficient resources on the smaller subset of exposures that present high-severity potential requires systems adaptable to variances in potential.

SIF prevention requires the active role of leadership. Effective SIF prevention ultimately requires that organizations learn to become sensitive to presently hidden data that indicates impending problems. Getting that done is a leadership issue. Leaders must take the initiative to ensure SIF precursors become visible and resources are allocated to address them.
 
In future installments of this column, we will look at steps leaders can take to leverage the findings from the SIF study, and how leaders can use this information to lead the way forward.

Thomas R. Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board and co-founder of BST. Author of several books in the field of workplace safety and leadership, Krause consults with senior executives on leadership, culture and behavior change in the service of safety improvement.

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