Near Misses

Though near miss reporting is a sacred cow among safety professionals, Phil La Duke of Environmental Resources Management examines why most shops waste vital resources and scarce funds relentlessly pursuing a goal that they cannot – and in most cases should not – achieve.

Though near miss reporting is a sacred cow among safety professionals, here are some reasons why most shops waste vital resources and scarce funds relentlessly pursuing a goal that they cannot – and in most cases should not – achieve.

Near miss reporting is a sacred cow among safety professionals. One would be hard pressed to find a practice as fiercely protected or zealously defended, yet most shops do a poor job doing so and waste vital resources and scarce funds relentlessly pursuing a goal that they cannot, and in most cases should not, achieve.

Near misses, or “near hits” as some prefer to call them, are commonly defined as incidents were workers narrowly escape serious injury or death. Unfortunately, this definition of a near miss is far from universal.

The far more widespread definition of a near miss is “anything that could have caused an injury or property damage but did not” . . . and therein lies the problem: If workers report every mishap that could have hurt someone or caused some form of property damage (irrespective of severity), most shops would be swamped with tales of bumps and scrapes that almost happened.

“There is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of man.” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Of course we want to investigate the near misses that are: a) likely to happen again, and b) almost certain to severely injure someone. Not to do so would be depraved indifference (although not necessarily in the legal sense).

We should always be looking for anything that is likely to harm, particularly severely, our workers, but one could argue that waiting for something to almost kill someone before becoming aware of it and containing the hazards before someone is killed is a far better approach to protecting workers.

The right near misses provide invaluable insights into the dangers endemic to our processes and help us to create a more robust safety management system. But the wrong near misses are red herrings that confuse our research and muddy our indicators.

There are some real problems with near miss reporting and, if this time consuming and expensive activity is ever going to yield dividends, we are going to have to make changes:

Clarify the criteria for reporting. Not every near miss is worth reporting — extremely remote events that are unlikely to produce an injury more severe than a first aid case may produce interesting information, but it is unlikely that this information will justify the time and energy it takes to obtain, investigate and take action.

Near miss reporting should be limited to those where workers narrowly escape serious injury or death.

Workers who have a narrow escape from death or injury are typically highly motivated to share their stories with the organization, where these same workers are often too embarrassed or feel the event is too trivial to report instances where they almost tripped on a sidewalk crack, or nearly scraped a knuckle turning a wrench.

But beyond reporting life-threatening near misses, workers should be encouraged to report anything they identify as having the potential to kill or seriously injure someone irrespective of how they come by this information.

Ensure you have an infrastructure for dealing with near misses. One of the primary reasons that near miss reporting fails is that the population lacks confidence in the system. People don’t like having their time wasted and you will soon lose credibility with workers if you ask for information and then do nothing with it.

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Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke is a partner in the Performance Assurance Practice at ERM: Environmental Resources Management, 3352 128th Avenue, Holland, MI 49424, 313-244-2525, www.erm.com. You can also follow Phil and reach him on his blogs at www.philladuke.wordpress.com.

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