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Workplace accidents are an unfortunate part of the daily life of a safety professional, right? While that may be true, this does not mean that they are an unavoidable part. Upon reviewing a large sample of incident reports, accident investigation reports, and disciplinary action reports for safety violations, I have become more convinced than ever that all accidents are preventable.

If a root cause analysis is done on each incident, the observer will find that the most of the root causes come back to a few basic items:

* insufficient training
* training not understood
* poor decision making on employee's part
* a lax attitude towards safety

Now before anyone takes offense, or thinks, "well, my training program is great, and is well understood", let's take a closer look at the above list.

Insufficient training
We as safety professionals believe that training is crucial to a comprehensive safety program, and this belief is accurate. However, do we always provide all the training we can? What about the times we are visiting the jobsite/production floor/workplace, and don't take a couple minutes to talk with the workers, and give them the latest safety tip we have learned? Training is not just a classroom event -- it is something we can and should do every chance we get.

Training not understood
In today's workforce, we are encountering a diverse mixture of employees, many of whom do not have English as their primary language. "But I have my training translated into (insert appropriate language here)!" OK, translating training materials is a good step, but have we stopped to consider the cultural differences as well? Giving a literal translation of your training materials may be more confusing. Don't believe me? Take any simple training handout, have a literal word-for-word translation done, and give it to one of your bilingual employees. The reaction will vary from confusion, to amusement, to utter disbelief.

Then there's the issue of providing training to those employees that speak English only, but do not have the same educational background that we do. These employees are talented workers, capable of production that I would be hard pressed to mimic, let alone ever equal for quality and speed, but they do not have the technical background. Giving training that throws out lots of jargon and technical terminology will get you a lot of nodding from the employees, but all too often, very little of what they hear will be comprehended as it needs to be. As safety professionals, we need to be sure that our training is appropriate to our audience, and is presented in a manner in which they will retain the valuable information.

Poor decision making on employee's part
Unfortunately, all the training in the world cannot prevent an employee from making a poor decision. But the appropriate training, properly reinforced, can help create good safety habits, thereby minimizing the likelihood of poor decisions. All too often, accident investigations end with the finding that the employee did something wrong -- when in fact, that is where the root cause analysis begins. If we are honest and diligent in our analysis, we will find more often than not that the root cause comes back to one of the two training issues above, as well as to the final point, presented below.

A lax attitude towards safety
"Hold on! I take safety very seriously!" Before I am drawn and quartered for saying that lax attitudes towards safety exist in may workplaces, I want you to consider the following:

You walk into the work area, preparing to do a safety inspection. As you enter the area, you see an extension cord that is not in the best of conditions, but that is not your primary item to inspect today -- you have another specific safety issue in mind (perhaps a report of an unsafe work practice). The second you walk past the hazard of the extension cord, and do not take the time to address it, you have just created a new expectation in the minds of any workers that have seen you. The new expectation is now "extension cord safety is not important, because the safety guy/lady didn't think there was anything wrong with that cord".

All it takes to create a lax attitude towards safety is to not address something wrong when it is encountered. Sure, you may have "bigger fish to fry", but by ignoring the "minor" issue in favor of the goal you have in mind for that inspection, you yourself have just undone the training you have given in the past. It seems trivial at times to have to stop for something and correct it, when there are other things to review and address, but safety is not trivial. Remember the first point in this post? Taking a minute to address the issues with that extension cord has not only helped to preserve the integrity of your safety program, it has presented you with a perfect opportunity to give on-the-spot training.

I am not saying that you have to stop everything and hold an hour-long class on electrical safety, nor am I suggesting that you ignore an issue that is an imminent danger in favor of the minimal matters, but it does not take that long to tell someone to remove that extension cord from service until you return and inspect it, while on the way to the area you had initially been called to address. Taking those extra moments to address that cord reinforces that all aspects of safety are important.

By addressing those items, I believe that we will all find that all accidents, when broken down and reviewed, could have been prevented. And by putting the ideas I have presented into daily practice, we can prevent future accidents.

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Comment by Lyndon Pousson on February 20, 2009 at 9:04pm
I agree with Jeff. USA Today (February 20, 2009) has an interesting article regarding three plane crashes since 2001. NTSB findings: Misunderstood procedure due to errors in the safety instructions, and human error. Those were the two suspected causes. The cause of the third is yet to be and may never be determined, but NTSB suspects a combinitation of the two above suspected causes. Again, I am not an expert and I am not point a finger at anyone. My conviction is that the sooner we admit that we are the primary role player in the root cause, the sooner we will achieve zero accidents.

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