June Brings Even More Thoughts of Safety’s Importance

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June is National Safety Month.  Safety is important every day, but National Safety Month gives us an opportunity for a special focus and reflection on how we might improve. In our hectic operations we do not always find time to communicate the value of safety.

People look to their leaders for clues to what is important. If the focus is always on production or quality or the crisis of the day, important values like safety may get ignored.  

National Safety Month gives us a chance to put our priorities in proper balance. It is a time to step back and reflect on what we are doing well and consider where we can do better.

It was 100 years ago that the first safety standard was developed. The standard dealt with many of the same issues we face today.

Now, equipment is designed with safety features built in and most facilities have formal safety programs to address safety and health hazards. 

Employers often focus on trailing indicators, like OSHA recordable incident rates, which have two problems. One, trailing indicators put a lot of emphasis on minor injuries and may ignore more serious problems. In 1931, Herbert Heinrich published his book Industrial Accident Prevention, A Scientific Approach where he introduced his pyramid theory that for every major incident, 29 minor incidents and 300 near misses occurred.

While a useful theory in many ways, more recent understanding is that fatalities and minor injuries have two very different pyramid patterns. 

Injuries associated with routine operations follow a pattern similar to the one Heinrich proposed, although the exact numbers often vary by industry.  On the other hand, injuries associated with non-routine work, such as maintenance and repair operations have a much steeper pattern. The idea that a reduction in the number of minor injuries will lead to a reduction in serious ones does not apply as well to high hazard work. 

The second problem with trailing indicators is they only tell us what has happened in the past and do not tell us how to change the future. Leading indicators, such as audit scores or training inventories, can be better predictors of future safety performance.  
We have made a lot of progress in safety and health over the past 100 years.  But the hazards of heavy machinery, molten metal, confined spaces, hot work and work at heights will be with us for a long time to come.  We need to continue to refine our efforts to control those hazards.

Thomas J. Slavin
Slavin OSH Group, LLC