Thursday, May 22, 2014

What, if anything, does a “near miss” have to do with health and safety?

“Well, no one died, so what’s the problem?”  I have heard lines like this before and I heard it again yesterday.  What irks me is that the people saying (or reported to have said) these words are often in supervisory or managerial positions.  Some even have a title or function that includes “safety and health”.  The truth is, the absence of injury is not a true measure of workplace health and safety.   And how a “near miss” is reported and reviewed reveals much about the safety culture of a workplace.

I instruct classes and seminars with learners and talk about safety with a lot of workers.  When I ask about their health and safety experiences, they often relate incidents like the following—serious incidents but without injury: 
  •  The ladder I was on began to slide sideways and I had to jump off.     
  •  The patient suddenly lost balance and collapsed on top of me.
  •   The student I was helping impulsively started the drill press while my eye was next the bit aligning the project.    
  • As I pulled out the top drawer, the file cabinet began to fall forward… I was just able to step out of the way before it went crashing to the floor.        
  • Someone had sprayed a lubricant in the hallway and I nearly slipped and fell when I stepped in it.
  • The metal plate broke loose from the winch and missed my toes by a fraction of an inch.

The workplaces above are varied:  a paint job on a residential site, a clinic, an industrial education shop in a school, an office, a hallway in a public building, a fabrication shop.  From an outcome perspective, there were no injuries, no lost days due to accidents, no need for doctor’s visits or alternate duties.  Yet, most of us would recognize that what separated the worker from injury in each case was a matter of luck (or millimetres) and not safety. 

Regardless of the workplace, each of the above incidents is a wake-up call, an opportunity to review the “near miss” to see if there are improvements or changes that might prevent a repeat of the incident.  Each case is worthy of an incident report and an investigation by the site safety committee. 

Safety is a function of the safeguards, barriers and defenses that protect workers from harm due to the hazards inherent in all workplaces.  Every near miss reveals active or latent defects in the barriers, safeguards and defenses that protect workers from harm.  Design, supervision, training, safe work procedures are some of the safeguards, barriers and defenses I’m talking about; an effective investigation will reveal the possible defects that had to align in order for the near miss to occur. 

If you are looking for a leading indicator of your workplace health and safety program, focus on incident or “near miss” reports.  How many are we getting?  Are they being investigated and discussed at the Joint Health and Safety Committee?  Are means of preventing future incidents being considered?  If incidents are not being reported, don’t assume they aren’t occurring.  And if incident reports are met with a “no one died” or “that’s just part of the job” sort of response, you’ll know a true concern for health and safety is not part of the culture of your workplace.  

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