The terms “unsafe acts” and “unsafe (mechanical or physical) conditions” appear in HW Heinrich’s book Industrial Accident Prevention as the central domino in his accident causation sequence. Between the 1941 and 1959 editions, the list of unsafe conditions grew, so that each list had nine items (summarised in the table below).
With Safety I (traditional thinking) we define safety as the condition where nothing goes wrong – there is no loss of life, no injuries, no damage. The focus of safety practitioners is on hazards, horrors and harm – the opposite of this. To improve standards, we look at where there is a lack of safety, itself evidenced by accidents, and work from there. This negative approach has been applied to occupational health too. Health surveillance looks for signs of harm, and investigations determine why someone has hearing loss or dermatitis.
If we could assign a precise value for likelihood, such as one in 100 years or one in 10,000 events, and we could quantify the severity of all harmful outcomes on a single measure, such as loss of quality-adjusted life years (for an explanation of these see www.nice.org.uk), or a monetary value, we would not need a risk matrix. The risk associated with each hazard could be calculated and compared with set values, and we could determine that it was a trivial, manageable or unacceptable risk.
The terms qualitative and quantitative risk assessments can confuse even the best. Perusing a LinkedIn conversation recently reinforced that impression as an expert attempted to explain the quantitative method to a sector newbie. According to the correspondent, a quantitative assessment assigned numbers to risk likelihood and severity, on a scale of, say, one to three or one to five. The numbers were then multiplied, and the result was the quantitative assessment.
As psychologist Paul Slovic states at the beginning of his 1987 paper on risk perception in the journal Science: “The ability to sense and avoid harmful environmental conditions is necessary for the survival of all living organisms.” Similarly, helping people to sense and avoid harm at work is a necessary part of safety and health management.
Standardisation was a key element of the industrial revolution. In the 18th century, tasks that were previously carried out by craftsmen could be completed by less skilled people using new inventions such as screw-cutting lathes to produce standardised tools and materials. The first customer of Whitworth’s standardised screw – developed in 1841 – was the Royal Arsenal, the British army ordnance depot at Woolwich, London, and military purposes continued to drive standardisation. Weapons made by craftsmen varied in size, so you could not use parts from one damaged gun in a war zone to repair another. In the early 1800s Eli Whitney was able to supply 10,000 standardised guns to the US government, all with interchangeable parts.
A near-miss is “an event that, while not causing harm, has the potential to cause injury or ill health”, according to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/hsg245.pdf). Some near-misses – such as those involving pressure vessels, lifting equipment and explosives that fall under the Reporting of Incidents, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) – must be reported to the HSE, but the regulator encourages internal recording of and investigation into “non-reportable near-misses”.
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) tells us that “the way you lead your team on health and safety can determine how safe your site is to work on”. This is backed up by research, as summarised by Sharon Clarke of Manchester Business School (bit.ly/2fgBvue) and by accident investigations. In the inquiry report into the rail crash at Ladbroke Grove in 1999, Lord Cullen supported the belief that “the first priority for a successful safety culture is leadership”.
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