Injury prevention Workplace exposures

SIF prevention: A discussion

Photo: gorodenkoff/iStockphoto

The prevention of serious injuries and fatalities is one of the primary goals of workplace safety professionals. What recent strides have been made, and what does the future of SIF prevention look like?

Safety+Health asked a group of experts to weigh in:

  • John Dony, vice president of thought leadership, National Safety Council
  • Thomas Krause, co-founder and partner; Kristen Bell, co-founder and partner; Rob Hoyle, vice president and executive consultant; and Dennis Jackson, vice president and executive consultant, The Krause Bell Group
  • Rajni Walia, vice president of client engagement and SIF prevention leader, DEKRA
  • Don Wilson, chief client officer, SafeStart

Sometimes they agreed; sometimes they didn’t. Here’s what they had to say.

Sources, SIF conversation

How much progress, if any, has been made in SIF prevention in the past few years?

Dony: As with many organizational environmental, health and safety initiatives and areas of study, progress on SIF prevention has slowed somewhat as attention turned fully to keeping people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That said, it certainly didn’t stop entirely, and the interesting variances we’ve seen across industry on safety performance (sometimes positive, sometimes negative) have reignited conversations within the EHS field around what truly drives performance in preventing injury and death. EHS leaders appear primed for another step change in SIF prevention going forward.

Walia: Progress has certainly been made. Although companies have been on the path to SIF prevention, much of the focus has been on the reactive side when it needs to be more of a sustainable model that balances analysis and action.

The Krause Bell Group: It varies by organization. Twelve years from Dr. Krause’s 2010 study, we would have thought more organizations would be further along. But recent SIF maturity assessments across organizations show that many have only just started to focus seriously on SIF prevention. Among the rest, there’s wide variation in understanding, engagement of senior leadership and strategy for change. Ironically, the new thinking about SIF prevention can appear too easy, leading to efforts that end up making it worse rather than better. “Oh yes, we’ve done SIF.”

Still, there’s reason for optimism: When well-informed senior leaders partner with their experienced safety pros to take on the challenge of SIF prevention, great progress can be made in a short period of time.

Wilson: Quite frankly, there hasn’t been any progress at all on SIF prevention. Workplace fatalities actually rose from 2017 to 2019 and, when the pandemic hit in 2020, it offset any progress that was being made in other areas.

With regard to workplace SIF reduction, the expression “the more you do for someone, the less they do for themselves” comes to mind. Are the safety pros looking for SIF potential on their own, or are they soliciting the help of workers in looking for SIF potential? There’s a big difference! This is one issue that human and organizational performance and the Toyota Kata philosophy (in essence, practicing improvement routines consistently so the process becomes second nature) have gotten right. SIFs can’t be solved by management intervention alone, and any sustainable progress requires employees to be active partners in SIF reduction.

The biggest advances we’ve seen – even since the pandemic began – relate to leadership decision-making and its effect on the culture of the organization.

The Krause Bell Group

What are some key innovations you’ve seen during that time?

The Krause Bell Group: Data analysis and technology have advanced rapidly, and so has the understanding of what it takes to rally an organization behind SIF prevention. Even within the past two years, we’ve seen organizations make advances in identifying precursor situations and defining their SIF-critical controls.

However, the biggest advances we’ve seen – even since the pandemic began – relate to leadership decision-making and its effect on the culture of the organization. Decision analysis methods have provided a much deeper understanding of the crucial role of senior leader decision-making in SIF causation and prevention. Showing senior leaders data on the effects of their decisions changes their perspective. Not surprisingly, culture then emerges as the key linkage between SIF prevention and game-changing business results.

Associate Editor Alan Ferguson discussed this article on Episode 29 of Safety+Health’s “On the Safe Side” podcast.

Dony: Two major innovations or evolutions have occurred in the past few years. The first is the convergence of the SIF conversation with the human and organizational performance conversation. These two topics have long had a relationship; in some ways, SIF prevention can be looked at as an operating approach, while HOP can be viewed as an overarching philosophy or lens through which to view EHS generally and fatality prevention specifically. The second is the increased attention we’ve seen to topics such as psychological safety; mental health; stress; and diversity, equity and inclusion – all of which have a role to play in SIF prevention. Both of these evolutions offer up some exciting paths for exploration and integration in the years to come.

Wilson: The message is slowly getting out that traditional approaches (including behavior-based safety and the Hierarchy of Controls) won’t effectively solve SIFs in the workplace. And they won’t move the needle at all for incidents outside of the workplace, which is where 96% of worker fatalities occur. If employees are truly an organization’s “most valuable asset,” then a different approach is needed – and companies are increasingly recognizing this fact.

People need to be given the skills and knowledge to recognize when SIFs might happen, as well as the ability to make real-time adjustments to reduce their risk. More and more, safety pros understand that helping employees develop better situational awareness is an avenue for long-term SIF reduction.

There’s also been more emphasis placed on psychological safety, employee engagement and workplace culture – all of which are critically important for getting people to speak up when something doesn’t look or feel right. Often, technical systems are in place, the hazards are known and multiple layers of redundancy have been developed – all geared toward preventing SIFs. But these measures fail to have a lasting effect unless additional steps are taken to identify and correct gaps in systems as they arise. You need people to be actively looking for and communicating about potential issues all the time, and management needs to respond positively and quickly to fix these issues.

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