Predicting and preventing workplace accidents

April 15, 2008
By: Kelly Langdon

Can workplace accidents be predicted and prevented? Aeroglide safety professional Kelly Langdon believes it's not only possible, but that doing so is critical for a company's success. In this article, Langdon explains the three-step process he uses to ensure his company's employees' well-being.

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Over the past eight years I have become somewhat obsessed with the idea of being able to predict accidents that might occur in my company's facility. I want to know not only the type of accident, but also to whom and when it might occur. To add an even more challenging twist to the story, I want to know these things well before any accidents occur. On the lighter side, I should state that I have no interest in modern-day soothsaying or palm reading in regards to safety.

I am thoroughly convinced that safety professionals can and should know the types of possible injuries before they happen. The primary reason for obtaining this information is to use it to educate employees ahead of time, thus preventing injuries before they occur. This article describes a three-step process that can help you predict accidents, whether yours is a start-up operation or a long-standing company.

Establish a Database

About eight years ago I willingly inherited our company's safety program. Most of my co-workers seemed to fear the responsibility demanded of any person whose job included making sure 200 employees made it back home every day in tip-top shape after having worked eight to 10 hours in a steel fabrication and manufacturing shop.

In the early months I found it difficult to get a grasp on injuries—past, present, and future. Until about seven years ago, all of our safety records were in the form of hard copies of accident reports, such as OSHA forms 19 and 300. Just looking back a couple of years was a very tedious process. It was during those early months that I realized our information must be digital and in some sort of tracked database. (I should add here that databases ideally are on a company network that is secure and backed up as part of a daily routine.) I spent many weeks and countless nights at home sorting through the previous 10 years' worth of paperwork.

It is important to understand which software your company uses for spreadsheets and databases and work with your IT departments to gain access to those programs that allow data entry. Our company uses Microsoft Excel for much of its spreadsheet-oriented information, so the natural step for me was to use the software we already had. (Note: Many open- license spreadsheet applications exist on the Web for those who need to be conscious of dollars spent on IT.)

I began by thinking ahead.

Safety professionals must visualize what will be needed 20 or 30 years from now when somebody analyzes the company's safety records. Be a visionary. I initially opened a blank spreadsheet and began adding headings that I thought would have value and that somewhat mimicked the standard information OSHA requires for accident reports and forms. I began by listing each injured person's first and last name, shift worked, date of birth (DOB), injury date, injury time (day of the week and time of day), accident description, workers' comp notes, claim cost, and duration of claim.

I have found that established companies require at least 10 years' worth of data to best utilize the information. Start-up companies may not realize the immediate benefit, but in less than five years they will be able to see trends.

One of the real beauties of a simple spreadsheet is that the information can be easily manipulated. It is simple to filter the information. For example, the spreadsheet can be sorted quickly to display all injuries that occurred in January for the last 10 years, or every injury that happened between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. on first shift. The arrangement of the information is infinitely variable.

Now the question quickly becomes, How do I best use this collected data to predict the future? Have you ever heard the statement "History repeats itself"? It is true. Unless root causes are determined and corrections made, injuries will continually occur in the same areas. Let's create a simple case study.

Let's say we are a distribution center, and the company loads trucks 24 hours per day from shelves inside a warehouse. A 10-year history for this company shows 20 accidents per year, and each year, 15 of those accidents are "debris in eye" accidents. Of the 15 eye injuries, 14 of them happened on Thursdays and Fridays during the third shift. (Note: The effective safety program will try to determine the cause of these accidents and will implement a solution to prevent them in the future.) A very important trend for the new safety officer to see is apparent in this example. Most safety professionals immediately would institute a back safety program, a lifting program, or even an ergonomic/repetitive-motion program in this type of operation. However, based on the tracked trends, it appears that proper lifting techniques probably are being observed in this company, but there are obvious problems with protective eyewear on third shift, especially on Thursday and Friday.

This is an oversimplified example to illustrate that things are not always what they seem. Without a history that is easily searched and manipulated, it would be very difficult to make informed decisions regarding future safety classes. It is also extremely important to imagine your safety history databases as transparent and apply them on top of company production patterns. I have spoken with personnel who have seen actual increases in injuries during long periods of downtime.

My particular business tends toward low-volume manufacturing and fabrication in waves. I define a wave as a sharp increase in production within a short period of time. We have found that most of our injuries occur about two or three weeks into a wave. We are just recently delving into our history to see if there are trends based on days of the week, months of the year, or even years within a group as we increase the number of years included in our database. We already know that most of our injuries occur on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. We currently are in the process of determining specifically which types of injuries occur more often on those days. This process is ongoing, and I believe that it merits extensive research and analysis of collected information. I also believe that we can predict those injuries before.

Approximately five years ago, we focused heavily on back injuries, because our collective history pointed to future back injuries during the spring and the fall. We offered extensive training that involved weight-loss contests and multiple annual classes on proper lifting techniques hosted by local doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors. Within two years we noticed a reduction in back injuries and also in overall injuries.

Establish a Network of Industry Contacts

Networking with others in similar industries is essential for ensuring safety. Safety is one of those areas that should extend beyond the boundaries of competition. I have often asked our customers, local vendors, and even former competitors detailed questions about how they improved safety. We were fortunate as a company to have acquired several of our competitors over the years. Each time I studied the history of the acquired company to see its safety patterns reflected my own company's.

A red flag immediately should be raised if you observe five to 10 companies that have very different injuries than yours. Similar hazards generally should be present in similar industries. Find out from those comparable businesses that have excellent safety records what they do that works. In short, be sure to benchmark successes and failures. Also be sure to study those similar companies that have poor safety records. Know why they have poor records and determine not to become a statistic. Networking is vital.

Also network with your workers' comp insurance company. The chances are good that it insures hundreds of companies just like yours. Listen carefully to the insurer's opinions and remarks regarding your safety program. The comp carrier can generally spend 20 minutes in your organization and tell you exactly how your company measures up to others within the industry. Never be too proud to listen and learn. I have found my relationship with local companies and my comp carrier to be extremely valuable over the years.

Also, get to know your state OSHA representatives. They generally travel and offer updates several times per year. I attend at least one event annually at which my local OSHA personnel discuss trends, local OSHA updates, and specific target areas. I want to know the types of issues and industries they are focusing on to see if our industry is a target, and if so, what we can do to address the issues they are seeing before our company becomes a statistic. Every state's local OSHA has specific guidelines. Our state outlines objectives for periods of up to five to seven years. Even the local OSHA departments use past history to determine future training.

Our job as safety professionals is to stay ahead of the curve. We should conduct our own research. There is no excuse for a company to wait until mandates are issued before taking action. Successful companies pioneer while the less successful wait for instructions before proceeding.

Establish Clear Lines of Internal Communication

I purposely saved this item for last. Often I list it first. Management must trust and value the study and opinions of the company's safety professionals. I made a personal vow several years back to never "cry wolf." I do not overstate or oversimplify issues with regards to safety. Safety professionals hold the well-being and sometimes the very lives of others in their hands. We must not take this lightly.

Be organized. Do not collect personal opinions. Collect the facts. Research your facts. Place them within your spreadsheet. Compare your facts with what others within your network are experiencing. Last, share your facts with the management team. Bring solutions to the table. Many times history can cause us to criticize others within our organizations. Again, establish open lines of communication and work together to see trends and predict the future. Be honest and objective. After looking ahead, establish a battle plan and target specific areas.

Injuries can be predicted to a certain degree with the help of a comprehensive, accurate database that can be easily manipulated. After establishing your database, network with other safety professionals. Networking is not an excuse for lunch outings and coffee. Networking should be an event in which sleeves are rolled up and participants conduct serious discussions regarding trends and patterns. Constructive criticism, especially from comp carriers, should not only be welcomed, but also embraced. We must identify our weaknesses before we can improve them.

Safety professionals must be honest and objective when conveying opportunities and solutions to management teams. Do not fantasize and bring only half-baked solutions to the table; bring the facts and workable solutions. These principles have defined world-class companies in the past and are the foundation for future success.

Kelly Langdon

Kelly Langdon

Safety Coordinator
Aeroglide Corp.
100 Aeroglide Drive
Cary, NC
Phone: 919-851-2000