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Employers urged to look within for safety shortfalls

Workplace fatalities are on the rise, but new safety research is outlining the ways that a deep dive into could-happens, near misses and smaller, less serious incidents could help prevent on-the-job deaths.

Referring to a pyramid to illustrate workplace incidents, with the relatively small number of fatalities at the top and droves of noninjury accidents at the bottom, a researcher with the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council’s Campbell Institute said an increased focus on those less serious incidents could help identify hazards that could be mitigated or eliminated, reducing the potential for more serious incidents that could result in fatalities.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were three recordable incidents per 200,000 working hours in 2016 — a drop from the all-time high of 8.5 recordable incidents in 1992 and a figure in line with the downward trend of fewer workplace incidents.

“(Employers) are doing a good job at preventing things happening at the lower end of the triangle, but unfortunately there are years when they have fatalities,” said Joy Inouye, Itasca, Illinois-based research associate with the Campbell Institute and author of a white paper released Oct. 23 on the shifting focus for safety professions who want to reduce the deadlier incidents.

According to the most-recent BLS data, 5,190 Americans died on the job in 2016 — an eight-year high.

“We are doing so well at preventing the near misses, but what do we need to do to prevent the fatalities?” said Ms. Inouye.

The key is to look at all incidents, including precursors to accidents, recordable injuries, lost-time injuries and fatalities, and seek out those with serious injury and fatalities potential, she said.

Six organizations contributed to Ms. Inouye’s study on preventing serious incidents and fatalities, all of which have implemented revamped strategies for identifying risk factors, according to the white paper Serious Injury and Fatality Prevention: Perspectives and Practice.

“We’re looking at that slice of the pyramid, incidents with (serious injury and fatality) potential,” she said, referring to a new illustration where potential is everywhere, up and down the pyramid.

All factors, including company culture can affect the fatality risk, she said.

Looking at smaller incidents and near misses can be key in finding ways to alter company policies, said Bill Spiers, Charlotte, North Carolina-based vice president, unit manager and risk control strategies practice leader for Lockton Cos. LLC, who read the Campbell Institute paper.

The paper reminded Mr. Spiers of an incident where a forklift operator was driving too fast, with the forks too high off the ground. One fork clipped a beam in the plant, spun the vehicle and tipped it over. The driver, who had not been wearing his seatbelt, fell out of the forklift cab, then the forklift landed on him and crushed his pelvis and broke his femur, Mr. Spiers said.

After the investigation, “we understood the system that that guy was operating in was the prominent cause,” he said. “Management wanted to fire him because he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, but my suggestion was to not fire him — that they had a production problem, that they told him to work overtime and hurry up.”

“That created a lot of problems and shortcuts,” said Mr. Spiers, adding that company’s production demands were a precursor to the event rather than the employee failing to wear his seatbelt. The injury could have been fatal, he said.

“As a leadership team, we have to look at the obvious things we see every day and look at the system and your operations and the way you do things and how that can create the storm where someone can get hurt pretty bad,” he said.

A key to lowering the fatalities in the workforce lies in an organization’s ability to look inward, Ms. Inouye said.

“It’s really not about fixing the worker; humans are going to make mistakes,” said Ms. Inouye. “Instead of blaming the worker for not putting on his seatbelt, start to look at those organizational factors that contributed to that.”

“(If) there’s a company culture of production, production, production and you have those kinds of organizational pressures, that will lead someone to take that sharp turn, to not put on their seatbelt, to have that injury,” she said.

The fresh look at fatality risk could help employers revamp their safety structures, said John Dony, Itasca, Illinois director of the Campbell Institute, in an email.

“To be at the top of their game, these companies recognize that they have to do more to protect their workers,” he wrote of the six organizations that contributed to the report. “To be at the top of their game, these companies recognize that they have to do more to protect their workers. While such incidents may not occur with frequency, implementing a serious injuries and fatalities prevention program is how these organizations move to the next level of maturity.”