Concern about the level of effort we take to control serious injuries and fatalities is growing because the number of deaths is not decreasing; it has plateaued. Companies and society cannot accept worker fatalities as just part of doing business. Our mandate is clear – we must improve how we protect workers.
How to Better Protect Workers: Reading the Data
There is plenty of data available on worker safety, from minor and common injuries to serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). However, it is a matter of looking at the right data for the corresponding problem. Case in point, the sharp decline in the U.S. total recordable incident rate is not matched by a drop in fatality rate. And some Canadian provinces have actually seen an increase in fatalities despite lower overall incident rates in the last couple of years.
The data does not give the full picture. For example, looking at Herbert Heinrich’s “triangle” suggests that a ratio of one major incident to 29 minor incidents correlates to 300 incidents with no injuries. Unfortunately, relying on statistics on safety practice has led to its potential misinterpretation and misuse.
More specifically, the main causes of no-injury incidents are not necessarily identical to the primary causes of incidents resulting in severe injuries. Therefore, the practice of concentrating safety efforts on the types of frequently occurring incidents does not necessarily translate into reducing the occurrence of rare but more deadly incidents. In other words, the reduction in incident rates does not automatically lead to the decrease in fatalities.
How is the Data Misread?
There is a tendency to underreport nonfatal injuries. According to OSHA, more than half of serious nonfatal injuries likely go unreported. And clearly, fatalities cannot be easily ignored. However, there is little correlation between improving rates of minor injuries and the decrease in serious injuries and fatalities.
An observed human tendency exhibited by workers concerning safety awareness is that it seems simpler and more common for employees to notice the small mistakes that lead to accidents versus more significant unsafe activity resulting in serious consequences. Typical safety observations are more intensely focused on easily observable behaviors and conditions, like slips, trips, and falls, for example. Less attention is paid to tasks and hazards that are more likely to cause serious harm or possible fatality.
As far as reporting unsafe findings, those of lower importance are much more frequently spotted than those of higher consequence.
Examples of High Consequence and Life-Threatening Tasks
- Work at height
- Electrical exposures
- Vehicle operations
- Work within confined spaces
- Struck-by and caught-in/between hazards
- Work with hazardous materials
As an example of a serious workplace injury, we’ll look at a fall-from-height event. The severity of consequences may vary, of course. But let’s say the cause of the fall was a failure to wear safety gear. The more we dig down into the contributing factors, the more we recognize that they are less tangible and visible, with more complex interactions than we had first realized. For example, poor communication, maintenance issues, stress, or economic or time pressures may be the behind-the-scenes culprits for a safety lapse.
There are more important factors that can be used as leading indicators for safety and more effective ways of gathering workplace incident data than simply counting the number of significant injuries due to falls.
Examples of Positive or Leading Precursors to Safety
- Workplace culture
- Effective personnel training
- Adequate comfortable and well-fitted gear
- Existence of multiple feedback loops (continuous perspectives from numerous sources throughout the organization)
Safety must be holistically integrated into a comprehensive practice through design, training, worker engagement, and proper construction. Additionally, looking at the social and technical systems within a safety management system is a key to identifying factors leading to incidents.
Data is helpful, but interpreting the data that has been collected correctly is imperative, as is having a workplace with a level of trust.
Weak Signals and Drift
There are also the twin issues of “weak signals” and “drift” to consider. Weak signals are the first indicators of a change or an emerging issue that may become significant in the future. “Drift” is the tendency to change procedures to make them more efficient, thus making them standard through repeated use. Strong organizations notice and respond to these signals long before they become an issue in order to prevent future catastrophes.
The typical remedy by management includes more rules and discipline, creating bureaucracy which often short-circuits relations between management and workers. On the other hand, fostering a culture of trust where employees can admit mistakes, ask questions, or speak about potential problems quite often has the desired result of discovering information that could be critical to preventing future tragedies.
Safety professionals may not be utilizing safety data accurately to prevent serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). Instead, they may be too focused on collecting data on common behavior and incidents that are not as relevant to SIF prevention.
Data grouped according to control(s) and risk potential is more useful in predicting SIFs than grouping by chance consequence, as is common practice now.
By reviewing data for social and technical systems within a comprehensive safety management system, we can improve the method of identifying factors before they lead to catastrophic incidents.
As we can see, injury statistics and their outcomes do not tell the entire story. It is vital for every organization to value learning and open communication about safety risks. Promote trust to take proactive and collective measures to avoid or mitigate workplace incidents.
PSJ Professional Safety, January 2021; Serious Injuries & Fatalities, Why Are They Constant While Injury Rates Decrease? By Carsten Busch, Cary Usrey, James Loud, Nick Goodell, and Rosa Antonia Carrillo
Vander Weir, M., 2020. Safety statistics reveal ‘disappointing’ trends on workplace fatalities, injuries, https://www.ohscanada.com/features/safety-statistics-reveal-disappointing-trends-on-workplace-fatalities-injuries/