Chasing Bee Stings: What Are We Doing Here?
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
For too many organizations, safety is reduced to a scoreboard of recordable rates. Life is good when rates are low. The sky is falling when rates are high. The absurdity comes in when comprehensive root cause analyses are done with recordables like bee stings and tick bites. Employees have to figure out how they could have prevented it. Managers get worried that their numbers will go up and that may put them on the radar screen with executives.
What are we doing here?
When everything is important, nothing is important. Leaders need to better distinguish between incidents with serious injuries and fatalities (SIF) potential versus those that do not. This should also be done with close call reporting. Despite popular thinking, total recordable rates don’t predict an organization’s risk for catastrophic events. It’s actually the opposite. In the construction industry, fatality rates were higher for organizations that had lower overall incident rates.1 In other words, the things that often get you hurt aren’t the same things that can kill you. Recordable rates show how well a company manages typical risks but not always more serious ones. Simply put:
Bee stings don’t predict fatalities.
Leaders should focus on SIF potential more with near misses and incidents. This includes prioritizing risks and then involving employees with potential solutions when risks are determined to have SIF potential. Spot checks should be done on tailboards to ensure that interactive and effective discussions occur around hazard identification and mitigation efforts. Serious hazards that are surfaced should be addressed directly (with the hierarchy of controls) and process improvements should be made and advertised. Learning teams should be formed to address hazards, especially when trends are identified with recurring near misses or incidents. And finally, messaging throughout the organization from the C-Suite to the field should focus more on reducing SIF potential instead of presenting a laundry list of safety statistics.
Failing to do this results in leaders chasing their tails to get the numbers down. It also encourages people to hide issues to avoid “screwing up the numbers.” This leaves a sour taste in their mouths. Years ago, I was chatting with an older employee who was angry that he got drug tested when a deer jumped over his truck, cracked a windshield with its leg, and then ran off into the woods while he was driving on a dirt road. His comment was, “They should have drug tested the deer.” He felt disrespected because he had decades of experience with a good reputation. Not to mention that he didn’t do drugs.
So, let’s all take a step back and think about what we’re doing with incident rates. They are important to track. And, yes, we want them trending in the right direction. However, we need to spend more time mitigating hazards that can kill people instead of trying to figure out how to stop bee stings.
- Saloniemi, A. and Oksanen, H. (1998) Accidents and Fatal Accidents—Some Paradoxes. Safety Science, 29, 59-66. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0925-7535(98)00016-2