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Leadership, culture factor in workplace injury root cause

By Mari-Len De Guzman

HALIFAX - If a recent study out of Nova Scotia is any indication, employers’ commitment to safety and how it is exhibited in the workplace and viewed by the workers would go a long way in preventing workplace injuries.

It is one of several insights uncovered in a study by Bruce Dodge, research associate at the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Workforce Development. Dodge was a speaker at this year’s CSSE Professional Development Conference. He talked about his findings on the pattern of root causes of workplace injury.

“Workplace injury is at epidemic proportions,” Dodge said. “We need to find other ways of doing things because we know we can do it safely.”

Dodge studied 300 workplace injury investigations — pulled from automated tracking system — to uncover the root causes, which he defines as the underlying system-related prime reason why an incident occurred.

He said the data indicated that identifying the root cause was not always a priority for the investigators. Accident investigations, particularly those conducted by enforcement agencies, are usually focused on the legal obligations and compliance-related factors, Dodge said.

“I did a qualitative study as opposed to a quantitative study,” Dodge said, stressing this allowed him to get an in-depth understanding of what really happened.

What Dodge found was that every incident is a result of interlocking multiple causes: the immediate cause, the operational cause and the root cause. He said that investigations tend to stop at the point where operational causes are determined, and not dig deeper to uncover the root causes.

The most common operational causes include: work process and method, which includes how the work is designed and conducted such as safe work procedure; leadership and safety system elements; and decision making, which includes factors that affect a worker’s decision, such as taking reckless action or a supervisor directing that work be done despite risk or simply the lack of a safe alternative to do the work.

In many instances, workers believe they had to and are expected to do the work regardless of whether they know how to do the work safely, Dodge said.

Leadership was also an important factor. “If leadership is not seen as strongly supporting the safety system, then the safety system cannot function,” he added.

Digging deeper in his study, Dodge proceeded to analyze the emergent root causes for these workplace incidents.

Many of the root causes emerging from the data have much to do with leadership and safety culture in the workplace.

One of the root causes for workplace injury Dodge has found is the feeling among workers and management that safety is simply not a consideration when performing work.  Workers would just do the job without any risk analysis or consideration for safety.

“If you don’t have the knowledge of how to work safely . . . then you don’t concern yourself with how to do your work safely,” he said.

The impact of culture and context on decision-making is also an emergent theme among the Dodge’s case studies.

The workplace is a whole set of assumptions, beliefs and realities that guide how decisions are made. Combined with management policies and commitment, all these influence a worker’s decision-making process — whether to work safely or recklessly, Dodge explained.

“People make decisions based on the information at hand and the time that they have to make that decision.”

Some of the other emergent root causes Dodge found from the data he studies include lack of understanding or commitment to safety, lack of leadership and management of work processes, and the knowledge, skills and abilities of both workers and managers on safe work practices.

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