In the past 6-7 years or so, EHS professionals have been having what some might call “come to Jesus” moments. We have started to openly question some of the tenets that we have held to be absolute truths, leading many of us to accept that we may have led our organizations astray, albeit inadvertently and despite good intentions. The good news is that we have begun to reach consensus on how we might move forward and better protect people, property and the environment.
One of the more significant areas of introspection has been with injury and fatality statistics that tell us, in part, how successful we are. The news has not been good – some say that serious injuries and fatalities have either flatlined or have actually risen since 1995. And while I know we now consider lagging indicators to be the lesser indicator of performance, as a profession we can no longer ignore what is in our collective faces: We are failing. By failing, I mean simply that – failing to demonstrate that our efforts are succeeding in the most meaningful way possible. You can’t boil it down any simpler than that. Every day nearly 13 people die as a result of workplace incidents. Every single day. That is simply not acceptable.
So what are we to do? On Oct. 29-30, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in cooperation with the Alcoa Foundation, DuPont Sustainable Solutions, Edison Mission Group and United States Steel, hosted the Fatality Prevention Forum 2012, a national 2-day forum to study the nature and cause of fatalities in the workplace, as well as prevention strategies. This forum was a natural extension of the 2007 Fatality Prevention Forum, which once again gathered a remarkable group of thought leaders. (To access presentations and best practice materials from the forum, visit http://www.iup.edu/page.aspx?id=128336.)
I was fortunate enough to be a member of the planning committee for this event that had among its objectives to: identify practical approaches that a facility can use to develop a risk profile and to discover best practices, innovative technological concepts and tools that have the potential to transform our ability to identify, assess, mitigate or eliminate the risk of fatal and life-altering injuries.
Participants at the forum heard presentations from Tom Krause of BST and Steve Newell of Mercer ORC Networks, who showcased current research and development of predictive models, which support recent writings that have debunked the forecasting value of Heinrich’s Injury Pyramid. They shared their findings of common precursors that are better predictors of the potential for a serious incident or fatality and include work in confined spaces, at heights or during LOTO; tasks involving with high energy; unexpected changes and upset conditions; and emergency shut-down maneuvers.
Mike Wright of USW put an achingly human face on the purpose of the gathering by telling stories of the people who have lost their lives. He related his experience that most fatality investigations do not typically identify regulatory violations as a root cause. Wright also said that when employees are asked why they perform an unsafe act, 60 percent of respondents said that there was no other way to do the task. Behavior-based safety initiatives, according to Wright, send the message that “We think your behavior is the problem, not the system.”
Yet even with the inspiring and thought-provoking presentations as is typical with conferences of this caliber, the real work gets done in during participant interaction – those conversations we have with our colleagues while getting a cup of coffee in the morning or sitting at a table waiting for a session to begin. With that in mind, the planning committee deliberately tried to capture those informal associations and conversations by scheduling several working sessions where participants were invited to submit and present their organization’s best practices. After spending 3 hours together over the course of 2 days, each working group presented their findings to the larger group, all of which will be shared on the IUP Web site for participants. As the facilitator of one of the groups, I know that many “a-ha” moments happened during the work sessions.
In his presentation, Mike Wright told participants the story of a crane operator who was killed when he pushed his colleague out of the way of a falling load. The investigation discovered the root cause to be the use of a set screw in the design of the main crane housing instead of a rivet. Many of us will remember that story for some time to come. For 2 days, we were fortunate to be part of an effort to shine a bright light on fatalities in the workplace and share best practices amongst ourselves. I for one left with a clear mission moving forward, and I know many of my fellow participants did as well.
Pam Walaski, CSP, CHMM, is the president of JC Safety & Environmental Inc. in Pittsburgh. Her company services numerous industrial and construction sectors with occupational safety and health consultation services. Walaski presents and writes widely on the subjects of emergency response and risk/crisis communications. She can be reached at 412.414.4769 or firstname.lastname@example.org.