Safety culture Leadership Injury prevention

Preventing serious injuries and fatalities

New approach ‘still in the early stages of gaining traction’

Image: HHakim/iStockphoto

In one part of the organization, a worker develops carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive motions incurred while sitting at a desk.

Elsewhere in the same organization, a worker nearly falls off a platform – but manages to right himself just in time.

The first event is a recordable injury. The second, which could have resulted in a serious injury or fatality, might never be known by anyone other than the fortunate worker and a few colleagues.

Is the carpal tunnel incident more serious because a worker was injured? Do the events deserve equal treatment? Or should organizations place a greater emphasis on limiting exposures to serious injuries and fatalities?

An increasing number of safety advocates say the third approach – focusing on serious injury and fatality, or SIF, prevention programs – is most important and most effective. The strategy runs counter to the long-held process of waiting for an injury or fatality to take place and investigating that incident. Nor does it follow the “one size fits all” approach to incident investigations. Instead, it calls for a proactive effort to prevent incidents before they occur.

“The old paradigm was to treat all injuries the same and investigate all of them and work on common root causes across the entire organization,” said Don Martin, who helps organizations across the country implement and maintain SIF prevention programs as vice president of Oxnard, CA-based DEKRA Insight. “The new paradigm says, ‘Let’s focus on events that get reported that have potential to be life-altering or fatal, and let’s investigate those with potential.’

“So it’s that triangle inside the triangle that gets special attention today that was not getting special attention in the last three or four decades. I think that’s the key to making real progress in our occurrences of workplace fatalities.”

In essence, organizations with effective SIF prevention programs have reshaped the way they keep workers safe, Martin said. They want to identify and correct “SIF precursors” that exist well before an incident. They know that just because a worker heads home safely after a near-fall doesn’t mean the safety program is good – it means it is lucky.

“Beyond that, understand whether your protection systems – like your procedures and your training and your rules – are they functioning to protect the lives of your people as well as you intended them to?” Martin said. “Because what we find in investigating potential fatalities and actual fatalities is that the systems the organization thought were in place were not as good as the organization intended them to be.”

Building trust

In general, about 21 percent of OSHA recordable events have reasonable or realistic potential to lead to serious injuries or fatalities, Martin said. Some organizations have higher or lower exposures depending on their industry sector, type of facility, location and other factors.

To identify and target serious injury or fatality potential, safety professionals and other leaders need to involve their workers. That means leaving the office and meeting the workers in their environment for an honest conversation about the hazards they face. Are those workers getting enough support from each other and management to stay safe? What additional protections, if any, do they need? The worker needs to feel comfortable and understand that he or she won’t get in trouble for pointing out possible breakdowns in the system.

“Trust and credibility are at the core of any meaningful effort to prevent SIFs,” Martin said. “Workers have to know they can trust not only each other, but also the management team they work for. If I take the extra step and I go out in the field with the worker and say, ‘Show me what you’re talking about,’ and I experience it, I am significantly more inclined to do something about it right away. That builds my credibility and helps to build those bonds of trust that are so important here.”

Rick Smith knows the value of face-to-face contact in preventing SIFs. Smith is the safety manager at James Industrial Contractors, part of Primoris Services Corp. in Baton Rouge, LA. During his 35-year career in safety, he said, he has never served as a project manager in which a fatality or disabling injury occurred.

“The people who are working on a project can tell you a lot – if you listen to them,” Smith said. “Earn respect from your people. Your people are your most important asset. My advice is listen to them, get to know them, talk to them. I don’t mean go out drinking with them at night – I’m talking about getting inside their head, so to speak.”

Building positive relationships can empower workers to prevent hazards ahead of time or, if necessary, in real time.

While visiting a client in the Alberta oil sands of northern Canada, Martin watched as a four-person crew lifted a load of pipe off the back of a flatbed trailer. Something quickly went wrong, and the load started to slip.

“You could see one person signaling to stop the job and to put the load back on the truck,” Martin said. “It turned out to be the new guy. They had a positive climate on the job around exercising stop-work authority. Sometimes, the willingness of workers to exercise stop-work authority is your absolute last line of defense.

“That’s a really good thing that is very powerful, but what happens next is critically important, too. Because now you have to investigate: Why did the system fail that allowed that load to start to become unbalanced?”

Leadership buy-in

To target and reduce SIF exposure, safety pros need to work up and down the organizational ladder. They need workers to report exposures without fear of retaliation, and they need to persuade the executive team that a SIF prevention program is necessary and important for keeping workers safe.

Gather data on cases within your organization that have SIF potential, Martin said. Show those cases to the leadership team and explain why it’s urgent to determine SIF exposure and reduce that figure as much as possible.

“Show them the triangle within the triangle,” Martin said. “Most of the time, executives get very interested in this subject, and the next thing they want is to do something about it because they do have high integrity and strong ethics around protecting the lives of their people, and now they know what to do because you showed them where the exposures are and where the breakdowns are happening.”

He used the example of a California-based manufacturing organization that followed that plan and launched a SIF prevention program in 2014. A year later, its SIF exposure had decreased to 17 percent from 29. The organization also experienced improvements in lagging indicators, such as its OSHA recordable rate and lost-time rate.

Employers of all sizes and in all industries may benefit from the proactive thinking that SIF prevention programs emphasize, Martin said. Leaders also must be cognizant that such programs need to be revisited on a monthly or quarterly basis and fine-tuned depending on new hazards that emerge.

“We’re still in the early stages of gaining traction with a lot of industry sectors,” Martin said. “I will say that when I’m out doing public speaking events on SIF, I routinely ask the question: ‘How many of you are hearing this for the very first time?’ It’s not unusual for 50 percent of the audience to raise their hands.

“I think we have a ways to go before it’s part of the normal safety vocabulary, but I do see a lot of indicators out there that it’s moving in the right direction. In real terms, success would be measured by achieving zero fatalities and zero life-altering injuries,” Martin said. “That’s the real, ultimate measure.”

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