As members of the utility construction industry, we must spend ample time and effort working to prevent incidents and injuries from occurring through the use of proactive techniques and leading indicators. The goals for everyone are simple: zero injuries, zero accidents, zero claims.
These goals are absolutely achievable, but they may be construed as unrealistic to the common craftsman. We have heard from this demographic that accidents are not always avoidable due to any number of factors, including scheduling pressures, financing, transient workforces, vendors and deliveries. In part, this frame of mind stems from the fact that some contractors’ safety and health programs are not ready to set these types of goals. Not only that, but the construction industry has a major handicap: people. We have humans performing hazardous and often strenuous work, and the reality is that humans make mistakes.
While managers and executives strive for zero injuries, zero accidents and zero claims, they also may be doing their company a disservice. Rather than specifically pushing for zero accidents, they should be pushing for greater transparency and a culture of reporting. After all, a reporting culture typically is a safe culture. Employees should get a vibe from management that says to them, “We’re not perfect and we need to report everything in order to identify trends, learn from our shortcomings and implement new programs and procedures.”
Near-Miss Events and Reporting
Near-miss reporting is one way to achieve a culture of transparency. Simply put, a near-miss is any unplanned event on a job site that did not result in an injury or loss but had the potential to do so. Near-miss events happen nearly every day, and employees should feel empowered to report them to management. When a near-miss event occurs, it should be treated the same as a recordable injury or property damage, meaning that it deserves a thorough investigation to identify the primary causal factors, no matter how minor. As a result of thorough near-miss event investigations, organizations can develop effective corrective actions through the implementation of new policies and procedures to prevent similar events from happening again.
Near-miss events often are described as “free lessons,” meaning a utility or contractor can improve its safety program without the direct and indirect costs associated with most incidents. There are two primary benefits of near-miss reporting: cultural changes and decreased claims. Not only does the reporting offer a built-in method for responding to near-miss events, it helps to create a mindset that primes workers to watch for potentially hazardous situations. Over the years, our company’s safety professionals have collected data confirming that the more near-miss events reported, the fewer the injuries on those job sites. That is because a reporting culture encourages behavioral changes.
For a reporting culture to be successful, workers have to feel comfortable admitting near-misses. They have to know they are not going to be punished if they come forward with a report. The decision to move to a reporting culture should not be made by one supervisor or department. That kind of transparency must be one of the organization’s guiding and core values.
Effective and Ineffective Approaches
There is more to establishing a reporting culture than simply pointing out near-miss events. We have seen companies identify a near-miss situation, call a safety stand-down and tell everyone not to do what happened ever again. That approach is not effective. More importantly, it does not address the root cause or other causal factors of the event. Something in the company’s policies and procedures led to the near-miss, and failing to make lasting changes only assists in ensuring the incident eventually will be repeated. The goal is to use these free lessons to improve your program.
Some companies claim to have a safe work culture because they give employees stop-work authority, meaning that any employee can call a temporary halt to tasks to address a safety concern. However, it is not unusual for employees to hesitate to use that authority out of fear they will be reprimanded or overruled. There is a huge difference between nice buzzwords and genuine empowerment.
The right terminology can help. We know of companies that have successfully put a positive spin on near-misses by calling them “good catches.” Instead of telling crews that somebody had a near-miss while performing a task, which is typically viewed as a mistake or failure, calling it a good catch praises the worker who called attention to it.
Finally, it is imperative to share details of near-miss events throughout your company and with others in your industry. Contractors in the electric power industry may work in different places and environments, but the tasks they perform are similar. Learning about a near-miss in another state may allow you to protect your team by refining a procedure so you are not doomed to repeat the same error.
About the Authors: Ryan Dobbins, GSP, is a safety adviser for Safety Management Group, a professional service organization that provides a full-service staff of transmission safety advisers who support capital improvement projects in substations and on transmission lines.
Jordan Hollingsworth, CHST, CSP, CUSP is a lead adviser for Safety Management Group.