Needed: Innovative thinking to prevent serious injuries and fatalities

By July 1, 2021 No Comments

By Dave Johnson, Phylmar Group Newsletter Editor

Serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) are a frustrating workplace safety issue for more reasons than one.

  • SIFs for years have stubbornly resisted efforts by some of the world’s most elite occupational health and safety programs to reduce their numbers. In 2001, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported employers suffered 5,915 work-related fatalities. In 2019, the most recent year reported, 5,333 occupational fatalities occurred.

• In 20 years, the recordable case rate of injuries and illness per 100 full-time workers has declined from 6.7 in 1999 to 2.8 in 2019. Fatalities have increased from 4,836 in 2015 to 5,333 in 2019. That total represents the largest annual number since 2007, according to the BLS.

  • The fatal work injury rate per 100 full-time workers was 3.5 in 2009. A decade later it remains at 3.5 in 2019. Industry cannot get off this plateau.
  • No single, standardized approach to identifying serious injury and fatality potential exists, nor a consensus model for prevention.
  • No standard definition for a serious injury exists. BLS’s annual reports of “days away from work” and “total recordable cases” do not distinguish between minor injuries that are temporary disruptions and those that can become a permanent aspect of the lives of those injured.
  • OSHA in its comprehensive website A-Z Index has no information on serious injury and fatality causes or prevention. NIOSH’s A-Z Index likewise has no information on SIFs.
  • Many employers take a reactive approach to SIFs. “Oftentimes, a fatality is the trigger for companies to review their safety and health programs and processes globally,” says Mark Katchen, CIH, managing principal of The Phylmar Group. “The C-suite asks, ‘What are we doing wrong culturally, organizationally?’”

It can be a difficult question to answer. SIFs often have no obvious causes; they are off an organization’s radar. “An electrocution due to a wire buried deep down is not an obvious precursor unless you are really looking for it,” says Katchen. “It’s not like a board across a walkway that a worker trips over, hits his head, and suffers a traumatic brain or spine injury, or possibly it is a fatal fall.”

Absent authoritative, time-tested identification and prevention methods, employers are left to sift through and choose from a patchwork quilt of SIF research, theories, definitions, lagging and leading metrics, qualitative and quantitative approaches, training programs, vulnerability assessments, risk assessments, incident reports and analyses, and root cause analyses.

SIF research dating back more than a decade and a SIF literature search reveal well-documented precursors to SIFs, including:

  • Work with electricity and energized equipment
  • Confined space entry
  • Work in a position pinched between in the line of fire and the release of significant energy
  • Driving a vehicle
  • Work at elevation
  • Work involving machine barriers and machine guards
  • Arc flash potential
  • Work under a suspended load

Note the number of precursors that involve energy. One critical aspect of SIF prevention is to train all workers on the types of potentially dangerous energy they may encounter. In a white paper on SIFs by Colin Duncan, CEO of SEAM Group, he describes a fall from a height; fan blades and rollers; and vehicles moving at high speeds as representing kinetic energy. Steam in a pipe and molten steel have thermal energy. Power conduits, power lines, and numerous equipment assets are charged with electrical energy. A wound spring contains stored energy. Ingredients of a combustible compound contain chemical energy.

Workers also need to know that sometimes, as Duncan writes, the least obvious hazards are those where energy sources interact, often invisibly or at different times. He describes how the energy of strong vibrations from nearby excavation work weakened the mountings and welds on a conveyor to a silo. When the conveyor jammed and two workers climbed up to fix it, the interaction of that long-ceased vibrational energy and the men’s gravitational energy killed them and several people below when the mountings and welds gave way.

Not all SIFs result from high-energy causes. Our need for oxygen can kill us in low-energy, oxygen-deficient confined spaces, or deprivation of heat energy in an industrial freezer, Duncan writes.

“But the first variable in accident prevention, the factor that matters most and most often, is the identification and channeling of energy into production and away from workers,” says Duncan.

Duncan details eight steps to “Follow the Energy,” the title of his white paper:

1 Locate the sources of energy

2 Calibrate the energy levels

3 Assess the human proximities

3 Identify the modes of failure

5 Calculate the probabilities

6 Focus on engineering and administrative SIF controls

7 Improve inspections and maintenance

8 Engage frontline workers to assess systems and how work gets done to help identify energy sources and system and process improvements that can mitigate SIF potential.

Visit SEAM Group for information on its interventions to diminish SIF numbers.

Conducting HAZOP assessments of energy sources such as equipment and machinery are an intervention envisioned by Katchen. Trained HAZOP multi-disciplinary teams would investigate how various sources of energy can fail or deviate from the design and operational intent to create risk for personnel. The team would grade deviations and failure points for consequent hazards, how likely they are to happen, and how severe they are likely to be.

A HAZOP assessment is a proactive approach putting the focus on machines and other assets, not human behaviors, says Katchen. HAZOP teams are learning teams. Dr. Todd Conklin, a human performance expert, says learning teams are an excellent means of shifting organizations from the “name and blame” game to a “diagnose and treat” approach.

In recent years SIFs have received increased attention due to the frustrating BLS statistics, but a recent literature search revealed a dearth of new research or thought leadership. Novel, innovative, out of the box thinking is needed.

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