Berke on Safety: No Accidents? Doesn’t Mean You’re Safe

June 19, 2008
The old safety wisdom has been, “If no one is seriously hurt, the workplace must be safe.”

But reacting only to “lost time” incidents means ignoring 99% of the opportunities to make the workplace safer. An effective close-call and accident investigation program with employee buy-in is the cornerstone of a safe workplace.

An accident is any unplanned, undesired event. It is not necessarily injurious or damaging, but it disrupts the completion of a task. By this definition, close calls fall under the “accident” umbrella. Every incident, from personal injury accidents to close calls, should be thoroughly investigated to identify and address root causes.

Having a company-wide Incident Investigation Plan (IIP) in place, incident investigation materials and equipment readily available, and key people trained to lead the investigation makes it easier to examine every aspect of the incident and ultimately identify the root causes.

The IIP should tell those involved or those who witness an incident whom to contact. This can include volunteer firefighters and paramedics in the workforce who can lend immediate assistance. It should also list trained incident investigators by title, not by name. People get promoted, get fired, retire, etc., and if they are being searched by name it may be difficult or impossible to find them.

The team members should have all the equipment close at hand for a proper incident investigation. They should be able to grab a back pack or gym bag and know it contains a note pad and pen, call list, security tape, still camera, flash, extra film or memory card, video camera, tape measure, tape or digital voice recorder, flashlight, extra batteries for all electronics, checklist or questionnaire designed for that workplace, and any other workplace-specific equipment.

The questionnaire aims to answer the following questions: Were there defects in the products, machines, or machine systems, including component failures? Was operator error or misuse, such as not following a job safety analysis write-up, a factor? Did environmental conditions come into play? Were warnings sufficient and did they function properly? Were the instructions adequate and understandable? Were there errors in or information missing from the owner’s manuals?

Investigations should start as soon as possible after the incident, when blood is still wet on the floor, so to speak. The investigation should be the top priority of the investigation team, not squeezed into an investigator’s schedule when it’s convenient. In addition to recording vital evidence before it disappears and quickly reducing the risk of future incidents, an immediate response to an incident shows that management is serious about the company’s safety program, and not just giving it lip service.

Having the right physical and administrative tools in place is half the battle when it comes to successfully investigating an incident and using it to improve workplace safety. We’ll discuss the other half, using the tools in an incident investigation, in the July 24 issue of Machine Design.

Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at [email protected].

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