Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Focusing on SIF potential is key to solving them

Safety Leadership

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA Organizational Safety and Reliability share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

Over the past 20 years, the rate of work-related fatalities in the United States has decreased more slowly than less-serious workplace injuries. In the past decade alone, the workplace fatality rate across the United States has been essentially flat. Numerous organizations with recordable rates less than one have suffered life-altering and life-ending incidents.

Our research and client experience has shown that about 25% of OSHA recordable events have realistic serious injury and fatality exposure potential. This means that just a single factor could have easily and realistically changed, leading to a completely different and more severe outcome.

One of the challenges of addressing SIF incidents is that fatal and life-altering incidents rarely happen. When SIF incidents do occur, they can be seen as an anomaly versus a sign of deep problems within an organization’s safety systems and culture.

So, what should organizations do if they are committed to reducing SIFs in the workplace?

First, they need to target the exposures that have SIF potential. For example, a person walking across a carpet trips and falls, fracturing a wrist. This is a realistic worst probable outcome. How about a worker who falls from a platform and suffers the same injury? The second exposure situation clearly has SIF potential because the realistic worst credible outcome easily could have been a fatality or life-altering spinal cord injury.

Second, organizations need to move away from relying solely on recordable injury rates and safety audit results as primary measures of safety performance. Most OSHA recordables are heavily weighted toward frequent, non-SIF exposure event outcomes. By relying on rates and annual audits, leaders mistakenly believe their actions are addressing the full spectrum of safety performance, when in fact they are addressing incidents that pose only non-SIF threats to workers.

Identifying events with SIF potential will greatly expand the database and set the stage for development of more meaningful safety performance metrics. A safety metric that focuses on SIF exposure will include both actual and potential SIF data, and will tell us whether we are improving, remaining stagnant or backsliding in our efforts toward solving the SIF problem.

Organizations also face the challenge of defining what constitutes SIF “potential,” and must develop a method for accurately classifying incidents with SIF potential. The effectiveness of this classification effort is dependent on building a process that includes credible, reliable and repeatable decision logic to evaluate incidents for SIF exposure potential.

This decision logic includes definitions for the “serious” component of SIFs. For SIF purposes, the definition of “serious” is very different from OSHA’s definition of serious.

From our perspective, “life‐threatening” is understood to be a case requiring immediate life‐preserving rescue action that, if not applied immediately, will likely result in death. “Life‐altering” is generally viewed to be a case that results in a permanent and significant loss of a major body part or organ function that permanently changes or disables a person’s normal life activity.

Another required element is an examination of the exposure situation the person was in when the event occurred. By focusing on the situation rather than whether an injury occurred, you will arrive at a more accurate response to the question: Was SIF exposure present in this event?

Applying the SIF decision logic to the two fractured wrist cases, it becomes evident that although the carpet-related fractured wrist meets the OSHA definition for serious, it does not meet our SIF definition. The platform-related fractured wrist has the same outcome as the carpet event, but the exposure situation is completely different, and obviously involves SIF potential.

Establishing methods for classifying potential SIFs and developing a SIF metric are key first steps in having an accurate view of SIF risk. Only when there is true visibility into the issue can real progress be made toward what every organization ideally wants to do: reduce SIF incidents.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.


Don Martin is a safety industry veteran with more than three decades of experience in the design and implementation of environmental, health and safety management systems, risk management programs, and organizational culture change initiatives for companies worldwide.



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