Monday, November 15, 2010

Aren’t "Safety" and "the Absence of Injuries" the same thing?

In the last 30 years, I have probably been asked this question in one form or another about a hundred times. If you think the question is just playing with semantics, you might want to think again. In workers’ compensation and occupational safety and health terms, "safety" means control of recognized hazards to achieve an acceptable risk. The "absence of injury" is a pretty straightforward and seemingly concrete concept. It is supposed to mean that workers involved in a process have not been injured. It sounds objective because we can count injuries. If injuries amount to zero, one might be tempted to say the employers and workers involved in the process have been working safely. This might or might not be true.

The first problem is the definition of injury. Most of us would accept that the amputation of an arm is an injury—a reportable, recordable, countable work-related injury. Perhaps fewer would classify a slice of an index finger that requires no stitches as a reportable injury or recordable injury. As you can see, how you define injury or what you qualify as a reportable or recordable injury may change what you mean by the absence of injury and what that implies about safety.

And therein lays the second problem: even with a broad and agreed upon definition of what constitutes a work-related injury, the absence of injury or a low count of injuries may say little or nothing about safety. When a piece of plate iron drops and strikes a worker’s foot, the only difference between a broken little toe and an amputated foot may be a matter of centimetres. In order for the iron plate to injure the worker, there was likely a failure in design, work procedures, supervision and training. In most such cases, it takes a defect in each of these safeguards and an alignment of these defects that results in the worker being injured. It is in examining the injury trajectory that safety (or the lack thereof) can be determined. The truth is, most unsafe work situations do not result in injuries; an injury may provide a reason to determine the defects in the safe work procedures, design, supervision and training/education that existed before the worker was harmed.

"Safety" and "the absence of injuries" are not synonymous terms. Any well-run safety program is going to want to know about all the injuries and all the near misses but more importantly, will be focused on the leading indicators of safety (adherence to safe work procedures, identification of hazards, interactions with specific safety-oriented content between supervisors and workers, etc.). The investigation of injuries and near misses will reveal where the defects were (and maybe still are) and how they aligned to allow a hazard to reach through the safeguards and barriers to harm the worker. Fixing the active and latent defects in the barriers, defenses and safeguards will arguably increase safety.

Safety is not fall protection or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or any other piece of equipment or protective gear. Safety is not the absence of injury (although effective safety is intended to have that result). Safety is an attitude, a disposition, a belief, a value. Safety is maximized when the defects in the design, safe work procedures, supervision, and training/education are minimized. It is because safety and the absence of work-related injury, illness and disease are not the same thing that prevention continues to be our top priority.

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