Less-severe injuries have declined, but serious and fatal injuries remain steady. How can you improve your injury prevention program?
How do you know if your injury prevention program is effective in helping to prevent accidents? Research by Dr. Thomas Krause shows that, during the past two decades, the trend in occupational fatalities in the U.S. has remained flat, while at the same time the reduction trend in lost time injuries has shown continuous improvement. There is a subset of hazards in the workplace that contributes relatively few minor injuries, but a much higher percentage of fatalities and serious disabling injuries. Throughout the past 30 years, thought leaders in safety management have continued to challenge the traditional methods of injury prevention — and they’ve done so by addressing hazards associated with infrequently occurring injuries, but have the potential to be very severe.
Thinking Differently: The Heinrich Accident Triangle
The accident triangle developed by Herbert W. Heinrich in the 1920s has served as a model for safety management for more than 80 years. Although this fixed-ratio model has been valuable, it’s based on homogeneous treatment of all hazards and doesn’t acknowledge a wide range of severity potential, as well as a wide range of ratios between minor injuries and major injuries. As early as 1980, Dan Peterson began questioning aspects of this model, in particular the application of the ratios to all hazards. More recent research by Fred Manuel and Thomas Krause has proposed that hazards having high potential for severe injuries are not accurately described with this model, and that an injury prevention program needs to address these hazards differently than those with low potential for serious injury.
Manuel and Krause have also noted that focusing on reducing frequency of injuries may show successful results without a corresponding reduction in severe injuries. As theories in advanced safety management with an emphasis on fatality prevention have evolved, it is increasingly apparent that hazards with high potential for fatality and serious disabling injuries require management intensity focused on potential risk as compared to the traditional approach based solely on frequency of injury, or the assumption that eliminating minor injuries will have a corresponding impact on more serious injuries.
Addressing Leading Indicators
Research by Dr. Thomas Krause is showing the low number of non-fatal injuries associated with high consequence hazards is not a valid indicator of the quality of the safety management system. According to the American Society of Safety Engineers, factors that may be better indicators could be:
- Frequency and quality of safety training for workers and line supervision of higher risk activities
- Frequency and quality of field audits that examines implementation of the organization’s safety program focused on higher risk activities
- Frequency and quality of management systems audits focused on preventing exposure to higher risk activities
- Attention to inherently safer design in selection of hardware and system design in capital projects
- Discipline in maintaining maintenance programs for equipment and systems critical to safety associated with higher risk activities
Injury Protection Programs Taking Action
Government agencies, professional organizations and educational institutions are advancing knowledge and resources to help safety mangers forge new paradigms in bringing innovative solutions to serious injury and fatality prevention. In 2007, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health launched a long-term initiative, Prevention Through Design, bringing attention to a highly effective design solution to help reduce risk. The American Society of Safety Engineers and the National Safety Council have organized forums on Serious Injury and Fatality Prevention (SIFP) at their annual conferences. ORCHSE established networks and task forces bringing together thought leaders and practitioners in advanced methods of SIFP.
University of Alabama at Birmingham established its online Master in Engineering Degree in Advanced Safety Engineering and Management in 2010 to educate the next generation of safety professionals in leading edge concepts in SIFP. In 2012, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) hosted a two-day forum to study the nature and cause of fatalities in the workplace, as well as prevention strategies. A summary of the forum and video describing key learnings are on the IUP Department of Safety Sciences website.
What You Can Do
To help further instill new paradigms in SIFP, managers and safety professionals can maintain a curiosity for seeking a better solution, as breakthrough improvement often involves abandoning old ideas in favor of new ones. Continuous improvement entails continuous learning since new ideas may appear contrary to established practices. Letting go of established practices may be the hard part in exploring new methods and techniques.