A recent conversation with Dave D. Lauriski, co-founder of Predictive Safety and CEO of Safety Solutions International, explored some underlying causes of workplace accidents in high-hazard industries. While he strongly believes that achieving zero fatalities is possible, obstacles prevent it from being realized. He asserts that measuring regulatory compliance alone cannot prevent these hidden obstacles, but data analytics like those being developed by Predictive Safety can be used to identify and manage them in a way to proactively reduce workplace incidents and fatal accidents.

Despite the steady decrease of recordable incidents in high-hazard industries over the past several decades, fatal accidents still occur, and some industries have even seen slight increases in recent years. Every incident has a cause, sometimes a combination of contributing factors rather than a singular circumstance or event, and the investigation that follows an incident often uncovers how it occurred. But determining the underlying why, the background or remote causes often called causal factors or core factors, can be controversial, obscure, or dissatisfying in the aftermath.

"Every incident has a cause, sometimes a combination of contributing factors rather than a singular circumstance or event."

In the wake of some events, especially large disasters, the competence of those in charge can become scrutinized; and although there are historical examples of poor ethics leading to harm, the necessity of a safe workplace is universally understood for the sake of a business’s continued operation. But sometimes, this universal understanding can lead to a sort of mental complacency, and Mr. Lauriski asserts that it is simply a mentality or outlook pervading all industries that can lead to lapses in safety awareness or judgment at all levels, from front-line employees to top executives, and re-shaping this mentality is a key to creating workplaces where accidents, especially fatal ones, do not occur.

Businesses produce their product to generate revenue, and when all activities and actions are pointed at a singular outcome, consistent production, an inherent pressure to achieve that outcome exists. This pressure, therefore, can sometimes lead to a lapse in safety awareness among employees or their supervisors. What causes this? It’s simple: high-hazard companies, like all businesses, are in the business of producing and generating revenue; they are not in the business of producing safety. Everyone works to make money, Mr. Lauriski says, “not to make safety.”

Mr. Lauriski says that often, accidents occur not because a decision was made or a specific idea expressed, but because of what went unsaid. For example, when a piece of equipment stops working properly, it is likely to be an atypical occurrence, and normal processes throughout an operation can be disrupted. The inherent pressure to resume normal operations may cause supervisors and employees to have a lapse in safety awareness, which could be rooted in various factors: feeling rushed, the complexity of the repair job, or they may simply forget to include reminders about safety procedures in their directions to others. This can happen because, as described above, safety is not thought of as a product of the task before them. But what if it were? What if personnel and their managers always viewed safety as a product or outcome of their job tasks, not just the completion of the task?

"If companies and their people are properly maintained, so to speak, then a culture of safety can emerge, where safety is an outcome or product of job tasks."

A high-level of production requires that all aspects of an operation are in good working order, and companies in high-hazard industries use a lot of expensive, heavy equipment and machinery that require maintenance and sometimes repair. And companies are also well aware that its employees and their health and safety are valuable, so safety training is both deserved and required. But what may be sometimes overlooked is that people, like equipment, also require maintenance, albeit of a different sort. If companies and their people are properly maintained, so to speak, then a culture of safety can emerge, where safety is an outcome or product of job tasks.

How can this be established? Mr. Lauriski asserts that one way is by having companies moving away from using compliance with regulations as the only measure of their safety performance, and having compliance become only one part of the equation. Companies should view regulatory compliance and ensuring a safe work environment as different, albeit related, things. Having been compliant is not an indicator of future safety; it is merely a description of the past. Workplace safety audits, though useful, are limited in scope because they result in mere snapshots—the circumstances during the audit—and therefore may not be representative of conditions when auditors are not present.

What may sometimes also go unnoticed by audits and accident investigations are factors that could be unrelated to the job task, but what the employee himself or herself brings to the shift. For instance, a new dad operating on less than four hours’ sleep may be compounding the likelihood he will be involved in an accident, especially when the events during the shift are not routine. The employee may be fully trained and a safe worker, but the lack of focus brought on by fatigue may lead to a lapse in safety awareness. 

"But should companies be aware of a lack of proper rest and other personal or circumstantial issues? Can such variables be realistically managed? Applications of current science and technology say yes to both."

As discussed in a previous article, compliance with regulations and laws is often viewed a necessity—just following the rules—rather than part of a proactive strategy for reducing workplace incidents. Mr. Lauriski asserts that workplace incidents occur often as the result of people’s behavior and conditions that arise from that behavior, but measuring a site’s compliance on a particular date and issuing citations for violations may do little to affect the behavior of individuals or what they bring to the workplace, like a lack of proper rest.

But should companies be aware of a lack of proper rest and other personal or circumstantial issues? Can such variables be realistically managed? Applications of current science and technology say yes to both. When a company makes safety a core business value, Mr. Lauriski claims, rather than just a set of rules or regulations with which to comply, it can have a positive effect on the company’s safety culture because personnel’s safety and health are being proactively managed. Predictive Safety provides tools that can help a company emphasize safety as a core value, consequently affecting the mentality and culture in high-hazard industries and leading to better workplace safety and health.

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