Workplace Solutions Facility safety Incident investigation/reporting Safety program management

Proactive safety and SMSs

Incident reporting has always been the foundation of workplace health and safety, but does it still have a role to play in proactive safety?

Photo: Intelex

Responding is Graham Freeman, content writer and editor, Intelex, Toronto.

Incident reporting has always been the foundation of workplace health and safety programs. We use it to perform immediate cause and root cause analysis, report to regulatory authorities such as OSHA, and understand incident trends across locations. As technology has advanced, mobile solutions have allowed frontline workers to report incidents from anywhere, while analytics allows for reports and dashboards with easy-to-use data visualizations for leaders and decision-makers.

Incident reporting is also a critical source of data for proactive safety. As we embrace analytics to prevent incidents before they happen, incident reporting applications provide data for identifying near misses, risks, and behaviors that could result in injuries or fatalities. The goal is to support a proactive safety culture that will eventually make incident reporting unnecessary.

However, relying on incident reporting as the sole basis for proactive safety has two significant problems. First, to provide usable data for analytics, incidents have to happen. Incident data is an artifact of reactive approaches to safety. Although this is effective for managing incidents and corrective actions, the reality is we need someone to get hurt or for the organization to suffer a loss, such as property damage, before we have enough data to work with.

Second, as workplace safety programs become more effective, there will be fewer incidents, which means less usable data. Analytics relies on large data sets to provide an accurate understanding of trends and incident hot spots at different locations. The more data we have, the more effective our analytics will be. Inversely, if incidents go down and produce less data, we’ll have less data to work with, which means the accuracy of preventive models will decrease. This reality exposes a significant weakness in using incident reporting as the sole source of data in proactive safety.

Proactive safety is more than just incident reporting or a handful of applications to eliminate spreadsheets and manual processes. It requires a safety management system that encompasses people, processes and tools to support a workplace in which injuries and fatalities don’t happen. That means rigorous audits and inspections to identify risks and hazards, and transparent and accessible documentation to ensure everyone has access to the information they need.

It also means control of work that identifies the correct way tasks should be completed and provides procedures and permits that consider complex system interactions that could lead to unexpected outcomes, and a culture of safety that is supported at every level. Also required: technology support for proactive approaches such as near-miss reporting, unsafe conditions reporting and behavior observations.

Yes, incident reporting still has a role to play in proactive safety – but not the starring role. Instead, incident reporting supports our efforts to understand our problems, review our management systems and address system weaknesses. To establish an effective approach to proactive safety, we need to move away from reporting incidents that already have happened to creating safety management systems that anticipate those incidents and prevent them from happening in the first place.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be considered a National Safety Council endorsement.

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