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Removing the Risk of Serious Injuries and Fatalities

Dec. 17, 2020
All safety incidents are not created equal. We can do better in preventing the worst from happening.

I’m going to conclude 2020’s Parting Words with a column on the topic of safety—primarily because I just watched an excellent presentation that provides some great insights on the topic, but also because safety is a topic that could be addressed every day and still not be talked about enough.

In this instance, the topic of discussion was a subset of safety, specifically serious injuries and fatalities. Jim Spigener, from consulting firm DEKRA, and Daniel Hebert, a behavioral safety specialist with Royal Dutch Shell, combined to address this topic at IndustryWeek’s recent Manufacturing & Technology Virtual conference. (If you did not catch the event, held earlier this month, you still can register at www.mfgtechshow.com/mts20 and watch it on demand.)

The thrust of the presentation was that companies need to up their focus on serious injuries and fatalities, and Spigener shared compelling data to support the thesis. The data, compiled from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed a steady and serious downward trend in the total recordable incident rate since 1993, across all industries. That’s a good thing. It shows that many companies are taking this metric seriously.

However, over the same time frame, the fatality rate has not shared that same trend, a deficit made abundantly clear as the consultant layered fatality data over TRIR data. Oh, the fatality rate has wandered down some, but it has also ticked up a couple of times. By no stretch has it tracked the same decline as the OSHA incident rate.

“The old way of thinking about it was that if you continued to reduce OSHA recordables, the fatalities would track with it,” Spigener said. “That is no longer true and probably has never actually been true.”

The presenters’ ultimate message for companies was to rethink and perhaps refocus their safety efforts. For example, are you putting the same level of effort into addressing a safety exposure that will never become serious as you do into addressing one that has the potential to lead to serious injury or even death? If your answer is yes, then perhaps some tweaking of your processes is in order, Spigener suggested.

Don’t ignore the lesser incidences, he said, but “put resources where something very, very serious can occur.”

The remainder of the presentation focused on interventions organizations can and should take to reduce or even prevent serious injuries and fatalities from occurring. I’m not going to go into each one, nor am I going to outline them in order of importance. Instead I am going to share a few that really resonated with me.

A good case narrative in an accident report is critical to the quality of the investigation. “Do a better job of writing down what actually happened,” Spigener said. “It creates a different reaction to SIF (serious injuries and fatalities) exposure potential.” “The general rule that we give people,” added Shell’s Hebert, “is to write it up as though somebody who’s never been to that area or never seen that area … that they can actually picture what went on and what exactly happened.” Don’t be vague, in short.

Start by removing the risk. Don’t be dependent on behavior, on the employee doing the right thing. “Prevention through redesign is much better,” Spigener noted. (Does this sound like error-proofing? It does to me.) “People make mistakes,” Hebert added. “Even on their best day. Even your best guy.”

Don’t forget over-the-road motor vehicles. There is a lot of risk here for serious injuries, and many companies haven’t thought about it in the same way they have about the rest of their safety, Spigener says.

Hebert closed out the presentation with a wish that industry create an environment and culture of learning. “People aren’t perfect. We can get better, and we need to set our sights on learning in order to get better.” I agree. 

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