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Do you want it bad enough?

Different perspective needed to change workplace injury rates

By Duff Boyd

Why do we continue to have workplace injuries? Simple — because collectively we want to. OK, that may be overstating it, but if nothing else, I’ve got your attention.

Would it be even slightly more agreeable to say that as a society, we simply don’t want to prevent workplace injuries badly enough?

Experience has taught me that even this latter statement raises the hackles of most safety professionals, management teams, consultants, regulators, union leaders, health and safety committee members — come to think about it, just about everybody. After all, we’ve been diligently expending billions of societal dollars toward the creation of safety management systems that will surely, eventually, eliminate the tragedies employees suffer every day in this country. However, is it worth considering that perhaps our continuing reliance on these efforts themselves underlies a significant part of the problem?

Because we know the science of safety has brought us a long way in improving conditions in all modern workplaces, maybe we have trouble letting go of the belief that more of the same will keep us forging ahead toward an accident-free workplace.

Take the recent announcement by the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) concerning the increase in workplace fatalities in Canada. How is that even possible? We have more safety professionals than ever before. We have personal protective equipment (PPE) for every hazard known to humanity. We have policies, procedures, standards and work methods to guide employees safely through every moment of their day. There’s not a management team in the country who doesn’t openly proclaim “Safety First!” It’s gotta be just bad karma — or maybe we need to readjust the safety paradigm as we know it today.

Allow me to take a step back. Herbert Heinrich was a visionary from several perspectives, and I take nothing away from his incredible contributions to the science of safety. His move away from the “bad things just happen” theory into a world where accidents had identifiable — and thus remedial — causes, led to the establishment of the engineering and administrative controls which form the foundation of every safety management system in use today. And over the past 80 years, we have been adding to, amending, and tweaking the system in the fervent hope it will become dense enough to shield us from all foreseeable negative events.

However, let’s consider a different perspective; one that realizes we should have stopped exclusively working on this system maybe as much as 25 years ago. Our efforts, while both well-intentioned and considerable, are sadly misplaced. The system is not the problem that the absence of the system was back in Heinrich’s day. Think of your last incident investigation. What percentage of causation was attributable to “human error”? Major player, right?

Of course we all know this human factor is identifiable as a primary contributor to the vast majority of the bad things that happen to us. Again, even Heinrich stated that about 80 per cent of incidents were caused by substandard acts, as opposed to substandard conditions; and that was in the 1930s! Fast forward in time and think of any number of major tragedies that have happened throughout the world, such as Challenger/Columbia, Exxon Valdez, Macondo, Northwest Air flight 255, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Bhopal and on and on. While investigations into each and every one concluded with recommendations for improvements in the “stuff” of safety, at the same time we find out that systems were already in place to prevent each one of these events.

Somehow, all of those systems were either ignored or strategically circumvented in order for the tragedies to occur. It’s at this point we really should sit up and take notice. How is it possible, with everything in place to prevent negative events, they continue to occur at alarming regularity? There’s 1,000 time-loss injuries and three fatalities every workday in Canada alone. This is absolutely unimaginable — or at least it should be!

We all know and accept the “human performance” issue. What we struggle with is our ability to effectively address it. Traditional approaches have been created and bolstered by the belief that it is the employees — those folks closest to the hands on the tools — who fundamentally need fixing. We give them all the tools and training and still they continue to precipitate harm to themselves and their fellow employees. It couldn’t be more clear. In fact, we’ve created a huge industry out of this belief, with no shortage of consultants promising to sell you new stuff and train (and retrain and retrain) your employees so that they’ll always have safety as their primary consideration. Safety culture! That’s what they need!

But that ship sailed a long time ago. And I say this with no disrespect intended in any way, for I too was one of the many who spent far too long travelling down that cul de sac.

Stay tuned for next month’s blog where I explain how I turned things around at my organization.

Duff Boyd

Duff Boyd retired as the director of health and safety for NB Power in 2018. Over the past 10 years he has been an outspoken advocate for shifting the focus away from presumed weaknesses in the safety management system to concentrate instead on the organizational influences on incident causation. He currently consults with both the private and public sectors as well as academia. He can be contacted at gsduffboyd@gmail.com.
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