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Who Is Responsible for Safety? Frustrated by Frequent Flyers

Man has no nobler function than to defend the truth. _ Ruth McKenney

What does it mean to be “accident prone?”  One definition is “to be involved in an inordinate number of, or frequently involved in accidents.”  Are you “accident prone?”  Do you have a co-worker or someone who reports to you who seems to be “accident prone?”  Sometimes people who have had multiple injuries or are involved in several accidents are known (by leaders behind closed doors) as “frequent flyers.”  This begs the question, “Who is responsible for safety when it comes to frequent flyers?”

I find that most leaders discuss their frustration with frequent flyers, yet don’t know what to do about them.  This is a subject that is not openly discussed and the idea of an individual’s accident proneness is avoided by most people when someone we know is injured, sometimes making it difficult to get to the root cause or truth of the matter.  The problem is no one wants to point fingers at individuals for various reasons:  sympathy, empathy, or fear.

Accident proneness is an old idea – it came to light early in the last century when researchers studying accidents noticed that the incidents weren’t normally distributed among a population of workers.  What they found was that certain individuals tended to have more incidents, accidents, and injuries than the rest of their workgroup or organization.  The theory of accident proneness emerged and was studied until later in the 20th century when we began favoring targeting environmental issues and workplace design over individual characteristics as a cause of injuries.  Even now, when incident investigations find human-error at the cause, typically we go no further then labeling the human error as action (commission, omission, or cognitive failure) or planning (related to skills or knowledge) – there are many different types of classification, these are representative for this discussion.

I have reviewed many incidents with safety professionals and leadership who avoid eye contact when the subject of accident proneness comes up.  Also, I have seen the same become angry and proclaim, “we are not looking to blame!”  One is a case of avoidance while the other is fear of confrontation.  In either case it does not help the person or people who make up most of the workplace injuries if we can’t have a frank conversation.

There’s a bit of a resurgence in the research on accident proneness theory.  The research is showing that there are three areas to look at with individuals who are frequently involved in incidents, accidents, and injuries:  knowledge, cognition, and stress.  Knowledge of how to perform job-required tasks safely is something that obviously affects the individual’s skills and capabilities.  Cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, and distractibility are characteristics that can lead to unawareness or ability to react to situations, thereby a possible cause of injury.  Stress has a correlation to cognitive ability and can affect memory and distractibility.  Stress may be of a momentary, intermittent, or more of permanent part of the individual’s environment – home, work, or both.  For example, we’ve probably all had driving training – to drive our cars, trucks, or other vehicles.  However, we all have likely had those times when we were driving somewhere, especially a familiar place and we suddenly realize we have arrived!  “How did I get here?” you ask – well, it wasn’t by The Transporter.  You were distracted, perhaps by stress or anxiety.  The same thing can happen when operating equipment or performing work that we are trained to do and have done many times.  The other side of the coin is that sometimes people haven’t been trained for specific work.  The lack of training combined with the stress of not knowing how to perform the work and a reluctance to ask for help can be a dangerous combination that leads to injury.

If you have a frequent flyer in your organization, or perhaps you are someone who has experienced multiple workplace incidents, it’s important to begin the dialog about what’s behind the propensity for accidents.  Sure, it’s uncomfortable, and you may some help with that.

In my years of advising and coaching to prevent injuries I have dealt with both avoidance and an aversion to confrontation when it comes to frequent flyers.  These conversations must occur and don’t have to be confrontations. Sometimes the outcomes identifying the need for training, suggestions (or requirements) for involvement in an employee assistance program, or a more significant intervention.  Perhaps the toughest one I’ve been involved in resulted in a career lineman being “benched” for a medical review that resulted in a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s.  As hard as that was, and not taking any personal credit, we may have saved the lineman’s life as well as prevented injury to others around him.

It’s hard to take responsibility sometimes.  Especially when the root causes go beyond safety system or process failures and environmental causes.  You are dealing with human beings.  Caring for them takes time and thought.  Don’t let avoidance or fear of confrontation stop you in seeking the truth in the pursuit of root causes even when the cause of human error may be difficult to face.

Be Safe!

Carl Potter, CSP

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In the May and June of 2017 Carl Potter gave subscribers to the 1st Thursday Safety Educational Report and Video information about how teams can move in positive and negative directions.  If you are interested in obtaining these reports all you have to do is subscribe and the Safety Institute will post you annual subscription for May 2017 and send you links to the past two months.  In July Carl will wrap-up the subject.  This safety education tool is for your entire organization for only $203.49 per year.  Subscribe today and ask for the Safety Is A Team Sport Series.

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