preventing serious workplace injuries and fatalities

NSC 2012: Preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities

Workplace fatalities and serious injuries often do not share the same causes that lead to less severe injuries – and it’s time to view these serious events through a different lens, Colin Duncan, CEO of BST, told attendees at the National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo.

If occupational injury rates are on a downward trend, that’s good news, right? Well, yes and no – while minor and less severe injuries may be on the decline, serious and fatal injuries are not following suit. According to Colin Duncan, CEO of BST, a company that helps organizations improve their workplace safety performance, EHS professionals must start looking at fatalities and serious injuries differently.

“When we see a statistic that workplace fatalities are not going down at the rate that injuries are, we need to understand why,” Duncan said during the Oct. 23 occupational keynote at the National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo in Orlando, Fla. “We need to accept that the things that lead to serious injuries and fatalities are not necessarily the same things we’ll see for non-serious injuries and fatalities.”

Last year, BST released a white paper suggesting that reducing minor injuries and illnesses may not translate to a reduced potential for fatalities or serious injuries. Duncan followed up on that research during his presentation at NSC, where he encouraged EHS professionals to focus the underlying causes and influencing factors that specifically surround serious incidents and fatalities.

Catastrophe and Culture

“Despite the remarkable progress in the way we use technology in the workplace, we continue to see process failures and catastrophic events,” Duncan told NSC attendees. “One thing we see consistently, when we look at major catastrophic events, is a common theme: There well may have been technical failures [leading up to the incident], but they were characterized by culture.”

For example, Duncan pointed out, virtually every catastrophic occupational tragedy in the last 25 years – from the Deepwater Horizon explosion to the BP Texas City blast to the Upper Big Branch mining disaster to the Bhopal chemical release – exhibited culture and leadership as root causes.

“We want to create an aggregate measure that allows us to track fatalities, serious injuries and any recordable that has the potential to be a serious injury or fatality,” Duncan said.

This new approach to fatality and serious injury prevention would:

  • Accept that serious injuries and fatalities and more minor events do not share the same causes.
  • Focus on precursor events that lead to serious injuries and fatalities.
  • Create a new aggregate measure for serious injuries and fatalities.
  • Educate senior leaders on this paradigm.
  • Recalibrate existing safety management systems.
  • Change how we use incident investigation.
  • Make learning the most visible aspect of process.

“We need to understand the process risks,” Duncan explained. “In almost every instance, there were weak signals that predated the explosion ... So we need to create an environment where leaders consistently create culture that’s enthusiastic about reporting.”

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