Paying Attention to “Near Misses” Pays off

By Ryan Dobbins, GSP, Safety Advisor and
Jordan Hollingsworth, CSP, CHST, CUSP, Lead Advisor
Safety Management Group

NearMissDay after day, the utility construction industry is battling the idea of transparency on the jobsite. General contractors and subcontractors all want to know about injuries on their projects at a moment’s notice. Usually, the main question is, “What is the injury rate for the project?” and the other information and statistics are less than important.

We, as the utility construction industry, should spend our time and efforts trying to prevent injuries and accidents from occurring through proactive techniques and leading indicators; however, we often become caught up on the lagging indicators. The goal for everyone is simple: zero injuries, zero accidents, zero claims.

These types of goals are absolutely achievable and make for great cultural messages, but they may be construed as unrealistic to the common craftsman. We have heard, from this demographic, that accidents are not always avoidable due to any number of factors: scheduling pressures, financing, transient work forces, vendors, deliveries, etc. This stigma exists because some contractors’ Safety and Health Programs are not ready to set these types of goals. In reality, accidents happen. The construction industry, in the grand scheme of things, has a major handicap that is people. We have humans performing dangerous and often strenuous work, and the reality is that humans make mistakes.

While managers and executives continue to strive for these goals, they may be doing their company a dis-service. Rather than continuously pushing for zero accidents, they should be pushing transparency and a culture of reporting. After all, a reporting culture is a safe culture. Employees should get a vibe from management that says we’re not perfect and we need to report everything in order to identify trends, learn from our short-comings, and implement new programs and procedures. Since accidents do occur, employees should feel empowered to report them to management.

Near miss reporting is the way to achieve this culture. Simply put, a near miss is any unplanned event on a jobsite that does not result in an injury or accident, but has the potential to do so. Near miss events happen nearly every day, and employees should feel empowered to report them to management through a transparent culture of reporting. When a near miss event occurs, it should be treated the same as a recordable injury or property damage, meaning it deserves a thorough and detailed investigation to identify the primary causal factors; no matter how minor or severe. Because of these thorough investigations, contractors can develop effective corrective actions through new policies and procedures to prevent a similar event from happening again. Near miss events are leading indicators that help you improve safety on the jobsite without having to deal with the consequences of injuries or property damage.

Near miss events are often described as “free lessons”, meaning you can improve your safety program without the direct or indirect costs associated with most accidents. The benefits of near miss reporting work in two ways: cultural changes and decreased claims. Not only does it offer a built-in method for responding to near miss events; it creates a mindset in which workers are primed to watch for situations that could be hazardous. Over the years, our company’s safety professionals have collected data confirming that the more near miss events reported, the fewer the injuries on those jobsites. That is because a reporting culture encourages behavioral changes.

For a reporting culture to be successful, workers have to feel comfortable in admitting near misses. They have to know that they are not going to be punished if they come forward with a report. The decision to move to a reporting culture should not be made by one supervisor or one department. That kind of transparency must be one of the organization’s guiding and core values.

There is more to establishing a reporting culture than simply pointing out near miss events. We have seen companies identify a near miss situation, call a safety stand-down, and tell everyone not to do what happened again. That approach is not effective. More importantly, it does not address the root cause or causal factors of the event. Something in the company’s policies and procedures led to the near miss, and failing to make lasting changes only ensures that the incident will eventually be repeated. The goal is to use these free lessons to improve your program.

Other companies claim they have a safe work culture because they give employees stop-work authority, meaning that any employee can call a temporary halt to tasks to address a safety concern. However, it is not unusual for those employees to hesitate to use that authority out of fear that they will be reprimanded or overruled. There is a huge difference between nice buzzwords and genuine empowerment.

The right terminology can help. We know of companies that have successfully put a positive spin on near misses by calling them “good catches.” Instead of telling crews that somebody had a near miss while performing a task, which is typically viewed as a mistake or failure, calling it a good catch praises the worker who called attention to it.

Finally, it is imperative to share details of near miss events throughout your company and with others in your industry. Contractors in the electric power industry may work in different places and environments, but the tasks they perform are essentially similar. Learning about a near miss in another state may allow you to protect your team by refining a procedure so you are not doomed to repeat it.

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