Workplace practices for keeping employees safe and improving the safety of their environments has improved vastly over the past century. While part of this improvement comes, without a doubt, from the vast leaps in technology. An equally important piece of the puzzle comes from what we’ve learned from experience. For the most part, processes that don’t work get phased out while those that do get brought conveniently to the forefront of publications and articles to help industries constantly re-invent and improve their “best practices” for safety. One system we’re glad to see making its exit in recent years, is the “simple” safety system, in which safety statistics and decisions are based almost exclusively on the opinions of management and the actual reported accidents and injuries that occur on the job. While the latter part of that system can provide useful data, it is reactionary rather than preventative, and requires someone to get injured or property to get damaged before corrective measures are taken.
In recent years, these methods have been thankfully phased out and are being replaced with a method that focuses on “near misses.” While there is a brief description of this process to follow in the next paragraph, this blog post is more about some of the common misconceptions and mistakes people make when implementing the system, and the core principles that underlie its effectiveness, rather than an exploration of the basics.
Many safety activities are reactive and not proactive, and some organizations wait for losses to occur before taking steps to prevent a recurrence. Near miss incidents often precede loss producing events but may be overlooked as there was no harm (no injury, damage or loss).
In a traditional system one would focus on actual incidents that occurred and resulted in either personal injury, property damage, or both, however, near misses look at mistakes or “close calls” that didn’t actually result in any damages. This means that a near miss would be recorded when a worker slips but is able to save himself or herself without injury, or when, perhaps, a machine kicks out a piece of debris at a worker’s face but misses him or her and doesn’t cause injury. In a near miss system, these incidents are still reported, with the idea that, given different circumstances (time, positioning, etc.), the exact same occurrence could have caused injury or damage. This alerts safety managers, maintenance workers, and others to hazards that need to be addressed, machines that need upkeep, and ultimately helps to keep larger, catastrophic events from happening.
The advantages of such a system are numerous, but are primarily that it is preventative and allows businesses to preempt risk. However, when the method is first implemented is isn’t uncommon for managers to be disappointed with their initial results and that’s because there is so much more to making this system work than there might appear on the surface. Safety culture and attitude, employee participation, and accurate record-keeping, are some specific components just to name a few. Let’s take a look at some of the underlying pillars of a near miss safety program and how you can use them to ensure success.
In addition to keeping workers safe, one goal of a near miss program is to engage all employees in creating a safe work environment, also known as the “safety culture” of a workplace. Accidents rarely occur in isolation, and safety culture usually plays a big role in arriving at either a safe or an unsafe situation. Think about setting up dominos in elaborate patterns as a kid, only to knock them over. The fun came from the fact that once you pushed that first domino, everything else happened on its own, with each piece pushing the one following it until the last one had fallen. The events and conditions leading up to an accident are also somewhat sequential, with certain conditions leading to behaviors, to decisions, and then to accidents. It is commonly accepted that safety culture is the first domino, or the first metaphorical “push” that leads to an accident eventually occurring.
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Creating positive safety culture, then, is the earliest place in the chain that managers can help to stave off safety concerns. In a near miss system, employees have to report near misses and do so consistently in order for data to be collected effectively. If this happens, you’ll be able to spot trends and warning signs in your workplace occurrences and snuff out safety risks before someone gets hurt. If employees don’t think reporting is important the system fails completely. For this reason, implementing a strong safety culture is vital to a successfully near miss safety system.
How to Build Strong Safety Culture
Employee / Manager Dynamics: Because near misses need to be reported by employees, workers need to be unafraid to do so. If workers are currently afraid of informing their manager or foreman of a mistake due to the risk of punishment, you need to start communicating that you want to shift the focus of accident reporting from punitive to constructive. Namely, your goal won’t be to “weed out” people making unsafe mistakes, it will be to actively improve safety for everyone through a team effort. Open and unafraid dialogue between workers and their higher ups is essential to seeing desired results from your program.
Mindset: Workers need to also see safety as just as important as you do. This can best be done through training sessions in which two things are accomplished: First of all, you need to communicate what can happen when an injury occurs through examples; there are countless tragic examples of loss of life and function as a result of preventable workplace accidents. Use employees themselves in your examples and dialogues, “Steve, if you fell out of a forklift and weren’t able to work for a year, how would that affect your family?” etc. Secondly, you should relate incident and near miss reporting as a priority, not a paperwork burden. Workers should not worry about falling behind in their work to report something, and if you have a full-time safety manager you can even let them take verbal reports from employees and file the paperwork themselves to make the process as easy for employees as possible.
Of course, training employees on what the heck a near miss safety system is, and how they’ll be involved, is just as important as getting them in the proper mindset to do so. Explain to your workers why such a system is advantageous over just counting days without incidents, and how the data can be used to keep them safer in the future. More than anything, educate them on just what near misses are. Over-reporting can, in some cases, become a problem (though it’s still preferable to under-reporting as you can sift through legitimate instances on your own). If workers have questions about whether something they witnessed is a near miss, they should have no hesitations about nor trouble in reaching out to your safety program manager for clarification and guidance. Educating your employees can be as simple as having a 30 minute meeting and watching a safety training DVD. After watching the training DVD, it may be helpful to have an open discussion about what was watched and discuss specific examples within the workplace that could potentially cause a near miss to occur. Many times proper safety signage can help communicate the risks associated with hazardous areas to help prevent accidents or a near miss from occurring. An example of this would be an area which requires specific PPE to be worn. A floor safety sign or wall safety sign communicating that PPE is required can help communicate and prevent an employee from forgetting to wear the proper PPE to complete the job safely.
The near miss process is golden when trends are observed early and solutions are implemented in a timely manner, but these two steps are their own processes altogether. Whoever is in charge of your program needs to be actively looking for patterns and thinking about what they can do to stop them from continuing. The double-edged sword of the near miss system is that once you have the data, you need to act on it; the last thing you want is to have a real injury or accident occur only to have it later revealed that you knew about previous cases of similar mishaps from your near miss reports.