Minor injuries on a job are fairly normal and seldom get reported or have much consequence for the company. Lost time injuries are less common, and a company may go a long time between lost time accidents. On a large construction site or at a large plant, you may notice a billboard saying something like “45 Days Since Last Lost Time Accident.”
But the difference between a minor injury and a lost time injury is often just luck. Nicking a finger by carelessly handling a radial saw before you plug it in and losing a finger by incorrectly using the saw both result from disregard of saw safety practices. That disregard may be a matter of attitude, or it may be a matter of ignorance.
Preventing lost time accidents is a matter of addressing both unsafe attitudes and ignorance about safe working practices. Correct for these factors, and you reduce the risk of lost time accidents. Here are four recommendations:
- Set the tone. Negative talk about safety as if it’s a burden must not be tolerated. Counter it with talk about the importance of safety. Safety attitudes degrade and safety gets undermined when unsafe behaviors are not challenged and unsafe conditions are allowed to exist. Unsafe behaviors usually start off as minor oversights, then grow into habits that permeate the culture and corrupt workers’ attitudes toward safety. Don’t let them gain a toe-hold; address them immediately each time they happen.
- Judge severity of action by worst possible outcome, not actual outcome. It’s tempting to minimize a safety failure when the consequences of a particular instance of infraction are minimal. But the severity of the consequences is irrelevant when it comes to whether a particular safety failure deserves attention. And that’s because luck is often the only reason things didn’t turn out far worse. If Jim has the habit of holding a meter probe in each hand when taking measurements, and the worst that’s happened so far is he got a tingle once, that doesn’t mean this practice is okay. Another consequence, one that is more than just “possible”, is Jim could trigger an arc flash.
- Be responsible. When a person has an unsafe attitude or performs an unsafe action, anybody working with or near the person is at risk. It’s not just the supervisor who needs to intervene. When it comes to safety, the responsibility crosses organizational lines. If your coworker has an attitude or performance problem in the area of safety, you have every right to address that with your coworker. Don’t take the “no harm, no foul” attitude — the lack of harm is due to good luck that might not protect you the next time. Ask the person to stop working for a few minutes to address the issue. Avoid saying things that put the person on the defensive, approach the problem as a mutual problem. Make it clear that the problem could result in a lost time accident or even death. So, it’s important to talk about how to do better in this particular area (whatever the area is, be it safely fueling a portable generator or using fall protection).
- Identify the knowledge gap. Many times, people suffer from minor injuries because they simply do not know how to perform a given task safely. And again, luck is usually what separates a minor injury from a lost time injury. Consider something as apparently simple as drilling a hole in a metal cabinet. Incorrect work practices can result in cutting one’s finger on sharp metal or even projecting a shard into your eye (right past your safety glasses). Correctly drilling the hole involves many little “tricks.” For example, mark the hole correctly, tape it on both sides before drilling, secure the work properly, and affix a sacrificial board on the exit side if indicated. Then use a new bit instead of an old worn one, the correct type of bit for the hole, and the correct speed and pressure, then position yourself above the work where possible. If forced to drill overhead, then do it with your face out of the drill hole particle falling path, wear gloves, clean the detritus with a brush or vacuum instead of your fingers, use the correct file to deburr the hole, and so on. Skipping any of these due to simply not knowing can result in a minor injury. Skipping several can result in the loss of an eye. Seemingly simple tasks like drilling a hole are actually complex tasks with many steps that must be followed to produce a quality hole and protect the person drilling it. A knowledge gap problem is common, and it’s often a source of minor injuries that due to luck just happened not to become lost time accidents.