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How Many Workplace Accidents Are Too Many?

When trying to gather interest in our services from business leaders in high-hazard industries, a colleague heard from at least one executive that said his company “did not have that many injuries” to justify improving its safety system. But how many is “that many”? Would the injured employees agree with him that the company’s safety system was sufficient to protect them? How many injuries are acceptable before the safety system is considered ineffective, and why should any number of injuries be allowable at all?

The Workplace Accident Cycle

Many industry researchers and writers such as R. Scott Stricoff and James C. Manzella have established and explored the notion of a “workplace accident cycle” as the systemic series of events that ensures incidents continue to occur within a particular workplace, even though at many companies they may be few and far between. And because incidents tend to be sporadic and occur to individuals (rather than are frequent and occur to groups of people at once), leadership often fall into believing common misconceptions about the potential of better safety systems, and they often maintain their skepticism in spite of abundant counter-evidence.

The workplace accident cycle is characterized by a general series of events consequent of a reactive safety system and culture that is top-down—designed and enforced by leadership—rather than bottom-up—designed with input by frontline workers who hold themselves and each other accountable. 

Scott Stricoff Describes the Workplace Accident Cycle Succinctly

“When the recordable workplace accident rate exceeds a facility’s upper-limit perceived acceptability, management acts to drive the workplace accident rate down. When the accident rate falls below that limit, attention to safety declines, and the recordable rate rises again. In this cycle, management action for improvement follows fluctuations in the injury frequency.”

“When a safety system is reactive rather than proactive, the system requires incidents to occur to find where it needs improvement.”

Thus, as illustrated by Earl Blair and Barry Spurlock, among others, when a workplace safety system is reactive rather than proactive, the system requires incidents to occur to find where it needs improvement. And this therefore causes leadership as well as personnel to believe that a certain number of accidents may be allowable or even acceptable—but thinking that the accidents occur only because the work is inherently dangerous, when in fact the safety system itself actually allows incidents to occur.

The workplace accident cycle is both the cause and the consequence of three commonly held misconceptions that are indicative of a reactive safety system:

Workplace Accident Misconception 1: An Absence of Incidents Necessarily Indicates a Safe Workplace Environment

Although going for a period of time without accidents in a workplace is obviously a good thing, within a reactive safety system, supervisors and leadership commonly misinterpret its significance and even blow the usefulness of such data out of proportion.

For instance, when a safety system is designed and enforced exclusively by management to the front line, this statistic can make leadership have the false belief that their safety system caused the positive safety performance, when it is just as likely that the front line performed safely enough in their own way, in spite of whatever official operating or safe work procedures say. 

Immediate supervisors turn a blind eye because the work gets accomplished. Such cultural and communication divides between management and frontline workers have been well-documented, such as in the work of Teague, Leith, and Green.

Furthermore, an absence of workplace accidents may just be the result of luck in spite of unsafe performance, as noted by Blair and Spurlock. For instance, a reckless driver may have avoided getting into an accident, but that doesn’t mean he drove safely.

Finally, this type of thinking represents a kind of generalization fallacy consequent of inductive reasoning: “This happened today and every day for the last two years, so it will happen tomorrow too.” Although it may be likely, it is not necessarily true. Safe work must be ensured through conscious, deliberate action and good communication, not simply assumed to occur.

Workplace Accident Misconception 2: Regulatory Compliance Necessarily Ensures Safe Performance

Reactive workplace safety systems commonly use their measurement of compliance with regulations as an indicator of their safety. In fact, at many companies, just meeting regulations may comprise the entirety of their safety programs’ content.

Blair and Spurlock have found that many companies do not realize that regulatory agencies such as OSHA did not intend for them to use regulations as the yardstick for their safety performance: performing safely and improving safety are different matters than meeting regulatory safety requirements. 

Jeffery Kohler has asserted that although regulations establish minimum standards of practice for companies, having complied with regulations does not help identify where safety deficiencies may exist nor inform leadership of safety practices contributing (or not) to that compliance. Because companies have commonly used regulatory compliance as a measure of their safety performance, and because regulations tend to be prescriptive in nature, efforts by regulators over time have snowballed and caused the creation of huge and complex tomes of regulatory guidelines, Kohler maintains, which has made compliance more difficult for companies and makes enforcement more difficult for regulators. A proactive safety system does not over-emphasize regulatory compliance as a performance measure, but instead uses leading measures to better identify where safety is going rather than merely focus on where safety had been.

“Companies do not realize that regulatory agencies such as OSHA did not intend for them to use regulations as the yardstick for their safety performance.”

Workplace Accident Misconception 3: In a Given Timeframe, a Number of Accidents Below a Certain Maximum Should be Expected to Occur

The principal contributor to the accident cycle is the “perceived acceptability” of an upper limit to a company’s incident rate, as described by Stricoff above. Although it is easy to see the impact that regulations have had in reducing accident rates since their creation, behavioral variables prevent regulatory enforcement and reactive safety systems from bringing incident rates to a practical zero. 

Kohler writes that despite regulatory agencies’ need to shift more toward using performance-based measures rather than prescriptive requirements, the current regulatory status quo means that leadership and personnel must meet the remaining challenge in creating incident-free workplaces. And, the first step in creating the zero-harm workplace is to discard reactive and compliance-focused safety systems that occasion the occurrence of incidents, thus breaking the bad habits of thought described above that diminish the effort in realizing zero harm.

NSC National Safety Council - Impairment Detection Technology Report

More Resources:

3 Myths About Workplace Safety
Workplace Accidents Reporting Prevention and Costs - The 25 Hidden Costs of Workplace Accidents
Predictive Analytics in Workplace Safety - Understanding Leading Vs. Trailing Safety Indicators
Whose Job Is It? The Shared Responsibility for Safety with AlertMeter
Safety, Quality & Productivity Technology
Who Benefits from Workplace Safety Regulations?
Accidents Happen - Is This How We Manage Safety Risks?
Thwarting the Accident Cycle through Effective Safety Communication
Safety Issues Associated with Commercially Available Energy Drinks

1.    Blair, E.H. & Spurlock, B.S. (2007). Leading measures for improving safety performance. Conference paper, ASSE Professional Development Conference. American Society of Safety Engineers.
2.    Kohler, J.L. (2015). Looking ahead to significant improvements in mining safety and health through innovative research and effective diffusion into the industry. International Journal of Mining Science and Technology 25(3): 325–332.
3.    Manzella, J.C. (1999). Measuring safety performance to achieve long term improvement. Professional Safety 44(9): 33–36.
4.    Stricoff, R.S. (2000). Safety performance measurement: Identifying prospective indicators with high validity. Professional Safety 45(1): 36–39.
5.    Teague, C., Leith, D., & Green, L. (2013). Symbolic interactionism in safety communication in the workplace. In N.K. Denzin & T. Faust (Eds.), Studies in symbolic interaction: 40th anniversary of studies in symbolic interaction (175–199). Bingley, UK: Emerald.

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