From 1992 to 2019, non-fatal workplace injuries decreased 68.5%, while fatal injuries decreased only 30%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. In 2019, 5,333 workers lost their lives as a result of work-related injuries, the highest number of workplace fatalities since 2007.
What can safety professionals and employers do to reverse this trend and prevent serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs)? Keep these three keys in mind to prevent SIFs at your organization.
1. Shift Away from Traditional Metrics
Traditional safety performance measures are after-the-fact metrics such as lost-time incidents and injury and illness rates. Preventing SIFs requires a greater attention to activities with higher risk potential and that involve circumstances that can lead to SIFs.
“In many instances, organizations spend too much time focusing on lagging indicators and outcomes such as days away from work and total recordable incident rates (TRIR),” says Travis Kruse, senior director, safety strategy and solutions, at Grainger. “This type of focus can create organizational blinders to high-risk activities that may have been perceived as low-likelihood in an initial risk assessment or missed completely due to the failure to recognize SIF potential.”
Kruse recommends a more balanced approach that identifies and assesses high-risk activities and puts proper controls in place. He also suggests a greater focus on indicators that may predict future success.
“SIF potential is ever-present in every organization,” he says. “You have to think differently about incidents and activities that occur and the potential to have a serious injury or fatality.”
2. Focus on Potential and Precursors
Although workers may complete tasks without incident, SIF potential may still exist. Metrics like TRIR and lost-time incidents represent what has happened, examining precursors and potential shifts the focus to what could happen.
“Organizations need to narrow their focus and identify, assess and control the precursors associated with high-risk activities,” Kruse explains. “Understanding the underlying precursors such as unsafe acts, unsafe conditions, or flawed systems, policies and procedures is the key to putting proper controls in place to prevent or mitigate a potentially serious or fatal incident.”
Answering four key questions can help you identify work activities with greater SIF potential and the circumstances that can lead to a SIF.
- What high-risk activities are workers involved in?
- What precursors could lead to a significant injury or fatality?
- What incidents could result from these precursors?
- What are the potential results of these incidents?
For example, working at elevated heights is a high-risk activity. A SIF precursor could be an improperly installed guardrail or the use of damaged fall protection PPE. A potential incident could be an employee falling to the ground. The result of the incident could be a near-hit, minor injury, serious injury or fatality.
3. Conduct Dynamic Risk Assessments
Risk assessment is a critical tool for SIF prevention. These assessments provide valuable insight into the conditions workers face and how your organization can improve those conditions.
“In most management systems or safety programs, risk assessment is the foundation,” Kruse says. “You can’t manage what you don’t know and part of understanding what you have to manage is taking inventory of the work activities and creating a risk profile of your organization.”
Kruse stresses the importance of knowing the difference between hazards and risks. These terms are used interchangeably, but they are fundamentally different, he explains. Hazards are objects, situations or behaviors with the potential to cause harm to people, property, the environment or a process. Risk is a combination of the likelihood of an event occurring and the consequence or severity of the loss should the event occur.
“Hazards and potential hazards must be first identified and inventoried, and the risks they present must be assessed,” he explains. “This is especially important when people are performing activities that are potentially life-altering or life-threatening.”
Kruse says risk assessments and equipment inspections should be regular exercises to address changes in working conditions and assess the condition of the equipment being used.
“Don’t rely on the fact that you have a properly completed risk assessment that’s done once a year,” he says. “Operational controls require routine inspection and will fail over time if they are not inspected.”
Kruse recommends that SIF risk assessment be a dynamic process tailored to each individual task and where it is being performed. SIF potential can change daily, and work conditions or applications can drastically modify the risk category.
For example, the hazards and risks associated with electrical work or welding change when those activities are performed at heights. Dynamic pre-task planning exercises can help mitigate risks associated with these specific work activities. And, making risk assessment documents accessible to all involved helps everyone know the risks associated with different tasks, as well as the control strategy.
“It’s so important for organizations to identify ways to constantly inspect and stay on top of risk activities and the dynamic changes that occur,” says Kruse. “Risk assessments aren’t intended to be done in a vacuum. They have to be living, breathing tools that are used in efficient and effective ways.”
Understanding Risk Management and Assessment
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