Safety Catalyst: Overcome Repeating Problems

Oct. 23, 2006
High-level strategists relish the challenge of tackling and overcoming long-standing problems.

One seemingly insurmountable problem most companies have is reducing accident repetition. So-called "accident repeaters" have multiple injuries. They account for more than their fair share of compensable costs, put a hole in efforts to improve safety records and can seem resistant to being helped.

No wonder many leaders become frustrated and push disciplinary or blame-focused interventions - which can include counseling, with an implication that the worker is at total fault for repeat accidents - on the work force.

But these approaches have been shown to be minimally effective and in many cases resulted in worsening problems. Workers feel unfairly targeted as being guilty until proven innocent and push back. Unions become determined to fight management's repeater policies, resulting in political or grievance issues.

In my 15 years of helping reduce accident repetition problems, I've learned many things. But beyond all the possible procedures or techniques to address this problem, I've found the single-most critical adjustment needed to make a significant impact is a strategic one: Change the way you look at and communicate this problem from an "accident repeater" problem to one of "accident repetition." Refocus on shared contributors to this complex problem.

Just splitting hairs? Not at all. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "People only see what they are prepared to see."

Finding the True Cause of Accidents

Personal responsibility applies to all of us - managers, safety professionals and workers. In practice, blaming others keeps us stuck and prevents us from planning and taking action that might improve our problems. Most current approaches to repeat accidents take two views: one, that workers have internal problems or two, that workers are slyly seeking to bail out of work with a free ride.

But in every company in which I've worked, I've seen five kinds of workers who have repeat accidents, including some who work extremely hard and thereby put themselves at greater risk. Others are too proud to report what they consider to be a minor injury, until the problem is exacerbated to the point where they can't continue working and create an ongoing weak area in their body. Then, there are the workers who believe what managers tell them - to report every near-miss or incident - and then feel dunned for having repeat accidents.


There is no question there are some workers looking to bail out or "get something for nothing," thereby faking injuries or staying off work on disability long after the injury has healed. All organizations should have, as part of their plan, an approach to reduce fraud.

However, assuming that most or all workers are bad eggs is not realistic from what I've seen. And even where leaders contend that "5 percent to 25 percent have an element of fraud," that means 75 percent to 95 percent of claims are genuine.

I suggest that if a leader believes a significant portion of claims are fraudulent, he or she should look within the company. What is the company doing or not doing to encourage or prevent fraudulent claims?

This exercise should go way beyond having a stronger enforcement system and examine work processes, employee morale and other aspects of work. As the medical director of a large communications company privately told me, "If I had to do what they do all day, I'd find a way to come down with carpal tunnel syndrome." Or as a corporate safety director remarked, "We have to find a way to develop a culture where people are not looking to bail out with a soft-tissue injury."

Personal issues that can contribute to repeat accidents - such as fatigue, preoccupation, rushing, not using training or applying proscribed policies - don't just fall into the laps of individual workers. These overlap both individual and organization domains.

Strategic leaders understand that significant improvement is founded on the willingness and ability to see all contributors to a problem.

Accident repetition is a complicated problem, but one that, when approached systematically, can be greatly reduced. Focusing on systematic solutions rather than on anger and blame work far better for boosting safety performance. With a dispassionate and systematic approach, accident repetition can be greatly alleviated and fraud can be significantly reduced.

Robert Pater ([email protected], is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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