In the past year, the UK has seen a 4% increase in the number of workplace fatalities. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that the 141 employees involved in fatal injuries in 2017/18 had grown to 147 a year later while the number of work-related ill health incidents, has remained broadly flat. Furthermore, figures of reported stress, depression and anxiety are also on the rise.
This is part of a worrying trend - we have not seen a reduction in fatalities for several years, despite companies enrolling their employees onto training courses and adopting onsite safety programmes.
These numbers suggest that traditional approaches to health and safety are not working, and a new approach is needed. However - to find new solutions - we need to examine why conventional safety thinking needs review.
There are five potential explanations to help us understand the situation:
Heinrich’s Triangle Theory claims that by focusing on low-level accidents, organisations can reduce the more serious incidents at the top. However, according to Donald Martin and Alison Black’s research 2015 paper ‘Preventing serious injuries and fatalities’, only 21% of incidents correlated with the higher-risk events at the top. This suggests that the incidents that injure people are not the same as those that kill them.
There has been a large focus on behaviour-based safety over the last two decades, which has helped to reduce the rates of minor injuries by about 60%. However, the focus is often on “fixing the worker” as Todd Conklin calls it in the “5 Principles of Human Performance”. This means modifying the worker’s behaviour so they more mindful of their environment and associated work hazards. Contrary to this approach, major accident reports informs us that it is often organisational factors rather than individual related issues that underlie serious injuries and fatalities and is often down to the way work is planned and managed. To prevent such injuries, strategies need to be put in place that focus on eliminating hazards, such as engineering improvements, designing-out hazards and, where practical, implementing safety technology.
Since many injuries result from low-level hazards, the existing injury metrics are not appropriate for measuring serious injury and fatality risks. When we measure success through the absence of accidents, we run the risk of ignoring blind spots. This is referred to as the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’, where we focus on the accidents we can see above the waterline but are blind to the near misses below.
Risk being normalised
Many people who carry out hazardous activities can become normalised to risks later on and as such, unacceptable practices become the norm. In a similar manner, those assessing high-risk activities can underestimate the probability of events occurring, assuming it won’t result in a fatality because it has not happened previously.
Despite evidence showing that human behaviour is determined by context, there is still the belief that injuries are caused by worker negligence. This misguided belief is amplified when human error is identified with little effort being put into understanding the reasons behind the error.
So how do I ensure my workforce is working safely?
A new approach doesn’t necessarily mean using a different set of measuring tools. Organisations can still use many of the existing safety activities, including auditing, observations and training courses. However, it does require a change in how you measure success and using a more human approach when examining accidents and near misses.
Here are some steps businesses can take:
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