Within the past year, a number of workplace catastrophes have grabbed the headlines.  As a result many have called for more worker safety regulations and more enforcement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  While these are all worthy of consideration, one must wonder if even the highest level of regulatory oversight and enforcement could have prevented these catastrophes from occurring.  It is likely there were other factors present that allowed such devastating events to occur.

Workplace accidents are complex.  Contrary to popular belief, accidents don’t just happen.  In fact, there are often many variables that contribute to the root cause and sometimes the root cause is never truly understood.

In studying workplace accidents, some interesting questions arise:
1. What statistics (metrics) are workplaces using to determine the effectiveness of their safety programs? 
2. How do they assess their risk of a serious accident or catastrophe?  
3. Do the current metrics used by OSHA (compiled from employers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) really measure your organizations’ accident risk?  Or, an even more basic question is, does it measure the effectiveness of your safety effort?

These questions are important because, as it has been widely reported, some of the recent workplace catastrophes have happened to companies that have had very good safety records and very few reported accidents.   

While none of us can predict when an accident or catastrophe will occur, the current metrics in use (lost work day incident rates, loss ratios, etc.) are only one piece of the puzzle.  A low OSHA lost time incident rate or loss ratio does not in and of itself mean that you automatically have a lower accident risk. 

There are, perhaps, more important markers such as at risk behaviors, worker perceptions, certain policies and procedures as well as other factors that serve as evidence of a potential accident.  These markers should not be disregarded just because they may be difficult to quantify rather, there should be efforts made to control them. 

 Some of these key markers include but are not limited to:
• Management commitment to safety versus management action to safety
• Management incentives for production in the absence of stronger disincentives for poor safety practices and performance
• Not identifying the major risks that are likely to result in injury, death and property damage and then preventing them from occurring
• Poor communication between employee and management on safety (i.e. fear of reporting unsafe situation and close calls) as well as the mindset that accidents happen
• Inability of workers to be able to stop work if there is strong evidence of a serious safety hazard or issue

None of the above factors are used to calculate the OSHA incident rate, insurance loss ratio or other commonly used measures of a good safety record.
Finding and addressing these markers may be the missing link towards identifying and preventing the “hidden catastrophe” within your organization!
This article is written by Milton Jacobs, President of Safety Solution Consultants, Inc.    He is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and holds a Masters Degree of Public Health (MPH).  He can be reached at mjacobs@safety-solution.com.