Management: A Comprehensive Approach to Reducing Accidents

Most accidents have many causes, yet some companies still pursue one-dimensional safety programs. Here are the three major causes of accidents you should be targeting.

By William Kincaid, P.E., CSP

A company that has a well-run, profitable operation, but has many accidents, has the capacity to accomplish accident prevention whether it realizes it or not. The trick is in applying the same business approach to accident prevention that has been successful in boosting productivity, quality, efficiency and other desirable quantities. The effort must use this approach to target the reduction of the root causes of accidents in order to achieve real results.

Just like production issues, quality problems and inefficiencies, accidents are best prevented by being committed across all levels of the company to the goal of eliminating the causes of accidents. The company can then, through providing the right people, adequate resources and enough time to do the job, eliminate the basic causes of accidents.

We can look for, and target, the causes using a variety of resources and methods, such as accident investigations, job safety analysis, insurance loss runs, the National Safety Council Root Cause form and OSHA logs. Looking at causes, we find it is a rare accident that has only one cause. Many have multiple causes, sometimes in multi-causal layers. These causes seem to fit into three broad categories: workplace hazards, excessive physical demands and unsafe behaviors. (Of course, we would have to rethink this for occupational diseases, but that is another topic in the making.)

If we want to reach our full potential to eliminate accidents by eliminating causes, we need to address all three causal categories. Therefore, we might find ourselves running an ergonomics improvement effort, and a program to make safety a stronger part of activities along with the usual program of compliance and physical hazards reduction.

Unsafe equipment and conditions include hazards such as electrical defects, missing machine guards, fire hazards, blocked exit paths, defective forklifts, broken tools, damaged ladders and slippery floors. These are problems that, if visible, can usually be seen whether work is in progress or not. Practically everything that OSHA looks for in their inspections (other than paperwork violations) falls into this category.

Few of the most common and costly injuries seem to trace back to this cause. The reason isn't clear, but maybe it is because OSHA and other prominent organizations have ample rules that cover almost all of the equipment conditions. The result is that most companies have programs to uncover unsafe equipment and workplace conditions.

Excessive physical demands covers the limits of a human being's physical capabilities: how much a person can do before breaking down. Human capacity for lifting, repetition, reaching, bending, strenuous work in hot environments or even just looking at instruments has been the subject of many studies over the past 50 years or so.

These studies have not resulted in accepted national regulations, but there are plenty of guidelines for human capacities for lifting, pushing, typing, visual tasks and so on. There are also numerous recommendations for design of workplaces, equipment and tools. We have little influence over physical fitness and we are powerless to affect the age and unique physical traits of our workers, but we can affect how much stress we ask their bodies to endure as part of their planned daily tasks.

How many workplaces have implemented a comprehensive policy to ensure employees are as safe from excessive physical demands as they are from unsafe equipment? There is no good answer, but knowing that strains are often the number one cause of injury in frequency and cost, there are plenty of places with problems and the potential to do better. Ergonomics, sometimes integrated into lean manufacturing or "5-S" programs, is primary among the available tools with the potential to reduce excessive physical demands.

In ergonomics, the goal isn't just to study our existing equipment that was designed by trained engineers and to redesign it using factory workers as our engineers. We should be trying to achieve the best human-work environment interaction possible in the most cost-effective way.

A good ergonomics process approach for a committed company is to set some clear, simple expectations for new designs, and also to apply these expectations back through existing equipment using the right people, adequate resources and enough time to do the job. This is where careful selection, training and the ever-necessary management commitment come into play.

Behavior describes observable actions based on knowledge, skills, attitude and motivation. Many accidents are caused by someone's failure to do something a certain way, or by doing something that he or she should not have done. We need to pay attention to important behaviors or else we rely only on unreliable factors to determine our results.

However, many people have no idea how to control and modify safety-related behaviors, or at least have not realized that there is an answer at hand. Training is not intrinsically motivational. Signs and postings are easy to ignore. The remote possibility of poor results does not motivate humans very well either, as is evidenced by the complete failure of educational campaigns over the past 70 years to eliminate smoking.

Fortunately, there are well-known management methods that can be used in affecting behavior: Look at any productive company and you will find many systems that get things done by including behavioral approaches such as training and motivating people.

Workers have to know what their job is, how to do it and, most important, what their motivation is for doing it, if they are to be expected to do that job successfully. To refine that thought, people will generally do what is important to their supervisor, influenced somewhat by the company culture.

What is important to the supervisor and the culture can be seen in the accountability system. Generally in a company with a good accountability system, there are clear goals that are reasonable, leading indicator metrics that are under the control of the persons responsible for them, and a fairly constant stream of two-way communication between the responsible person and the person who evaluates their performance. This gets things done, at least the things that are covered by the accountability metrics and goals.

There are also some intangible qualities that exist in the companies that have the best accident reduction efforts.

If we promote safety interdependence, interaction and intervention along with making sure everyone feels that safety is an important part of the job, we will accomplish a lot. People that communicate without regard to rank, cooperate to develop the best and safest ways to do tasks, watch for hazards for themselves and others, anticipate safety needs in project development, and step in when they can help others work more safely show these qualities. These qualities are what companies like DuPont have used over the years to drive accidents down to minimal levels while remaining a solid and profitable business.

With behavioral safety, our goals go far beyond influencing a specific observable behavior. We should do more than just try to eliminate known risky behaviors. Instead, we should raise the importance of safety in the company culture to improve safety in daily activities, both in the present and in the way all workers plan for future work and new activities as well. We're not trying to expand our control over people, but rather improve the way people interact with their work environment and each other.

The behavioral effort doesn't have to include a formal peer-observation process or one of the other well-known behavioral programs. However, these processes are additional, powerful ways to influence and improve safety culture that might be worthwhile to consider as part of the big picture. The safety program shouldn't rely only on a single behavioral process, either. Good behavioral safety should be based on good management, proven management methods and maybe even a little common sense, not just psychological principles.

Accident prevention should use the same well-proven business approach that has been successful in boosting productivity, quality, efficiency and other desirable quantities, while not ignoring important causes. Targeting all accident causes workplace conditions, physical demands and behaviors is the key to preventing the worst, most common and most costly accidents.

William H.Kincaid, P.E., CSP, is a senior loss control consultant for Lockton Insurance Cos. in St. Louis. Before becoming a consultant, he was an OSHA safety engineer specializing in ergonomics, "significant cases" and fatality inspections. He earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis and is a registered professional engineer with 12 years' experience as a production manager.

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