Understanding the Causes of Injuries

By Phil La Duke

Perhaps the most over-looked step in making the workplace safer is an understanding of the nature of injuries.  It sounds simple—after all, isn’t this all just common sense? The nature of injuries may seem pretty obvious, but when you consider the many factors that can lead to injuries, things can get pretty confusing, pretty fast..

The nature of injuries has been the source of conjecture, competing systems, and bitter feuds since the industrial revolution.  For many years worker injuries were seen as an unavoidable cost of doing business.  Farmers got kicked by mules, miners were killed in cave-ins, sailors drowned, and metal workers burned to death; that’s just the way it was and nobody gave it much thought.

As business grew more organized and experts looked for ways to make operations run more smoothly attitudes toward workplace safety changed, albeit slowly. But it wasn’t until the Triangle Shirt Waste Company fire, and to a lesser extent the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, that any substantive call for government regulation of safety.

On December 29, 1970 the U.S. Government formed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and in the ensuing years most people viewed safety as something someone does many, if not most, took the view that if people would be more careful they wouldn’t get hurt as much. It made sense then, and it makes sense now.  This belief set was further bolstered when the National Safety Council released its finding that something like 95% of all injuries were caused by unsafe behaviors.  It all feels pretty reasonable, it all makes so much sense, and yet it’s wrong.

Before the dullards blast my in-box, yes, I will grant you that BBS is a science, if you will grant me that so are eugenics, phrenology, cryptozology, parapsychology and a host of other fad and fringe fields are also sciences in that they use the scientific method and controls and all the other criteria for one to claim such a designation.  Sufficed to say, we have struggled under the misconception that we understand the nature of injuries when in fact, we do not.

That’s not to say that some injuries aren’t caused by reckless jackasses who act with wanton disrespect for the safety of themselves or others, but those incidents are, in my opinion rare.

Human Error

People screw up. They don’t choose to, they don’t want to, but they do. We live in an imperfect world and despite our best intentions some things go awry. We can’t truly prevent human error but we can work to protect people from the consequences of their mistakes.

Process Incapability

Often variability in our processes—both mechanical and human behaviors—can create hazards that hurt people. By having tighter controls on our processes we can often prevent these issues from becoming injuries, but as with human error we must also look to manage the risk of injury through the hierarchy of controls.

Risk Taking

A big contributor to worker injuries is risk taking.  We WANT people to take some risks (for example, a worker who violates a process in order to prevent an explosion) we just don’t want them taking unjustifiable risks or taking risks without understanding the jeopardy in which they are placed by taking these risks.  People will always take shortcuts, and unless we can train them in risk assessment and help them to make better judgments we can never hope to offer any protection against disaster.
Equipment Failure

Tools wear out and break sending shrapnel into the work place, grinding wheels crumble into pieces and fling stone at the heads of workers, and saw blades fail and go flying who knows where.  These scenes play out in the workplace daily and scarce little thought is given to these events.  A good Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) program can lower the risk both by making the failures easier to predict and allowing maintenance to change tooling before it fails.

Exposure

For some, exposure issues are more environmental hygiene issues than safety issues, but in my book, if it can hurt workers then it’s a safety issues. Exposure is sometimes difficult to control because too often we only become aware of the issue when it too late to avoid the damage done through exposure.

Ergonomic Stress

As with exposure issues, ergonomic issues can be hard to spot.  Ergonomic injuries develop over time and injury occurs only after a threshold has been crossed.  These injuries tend to be serious and costly to treat.  Ergonomic injuries can be avoided by implementing a robust ergonomics program.

Poor Housekeeping

Perhaps the most common cause of injuries, near misses, and first aid cases is also the easiest to correct: poor housekeeping.  Poor housekeeping contributes to human error, makes risk taking essential, and can create everything from trip hazards to exposure risk.  A solid 5S initiative can prevent many housekeeping issues.

Nonstandard Work/Working Out of Station

Whenever we work outside the intended standard—whether it be because of part shortages, increased or decreased production, or simply workers working out of the designated work area.  This creates a situation that the people who designed the process never intended and perhaps never anticipated when they laid out the work area and associated protections.  This type of hazard must be tightly managed not only to protect the workers, but also to ensure quality and efficiency.

This list is neither exhaustive nor equally applicable to all workplaces; safety professionals need to take a hard look at the environments for which they are responsible—no external consultant or safety system provider is likely to know the hazards of your workplace as well as you do.

As long as safety management systems focus too heavily on one cause of safety while downplaying the others as less important, we will never make a sustainable improvement in worker safety.

 

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