Workers in industrial sectors regularly operate under hazardous conditions. In the oil and gas and petrochemical industries, every phase of production presents a wide range of threats such as chemical burns, toxic gas, hazardous noise, or manual handling injuries. Manufacturing facilities and construction sites are major danger zones as well, exposing workers to hazards like trips, falls and repetitive motion injuries. And that’s just scratching the surface.
In 2016 alone, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 5,190 worker fatalities and 2.9 million non-fatal injuries and illnesses, with 21.1% coming from the construction sector. In addition to the immediate effects of an workplace injury, U.S. businesses also deal with the loss of millions of production hours and billions of dollars spent on health care, insurance and regulatory fines.
With such a high cost of HSE incidents, safety is one of the biggest concerns for employers in industrial sectors. Over the years, there have been dramatic improvements to safety protocols and regulations. Given the precarious nature of these work environments, however, accidents and incidents are still likely to occur. The fatality rate in these industries seems to have flat-lined – it is no longer on the decline.
Injuries to the hand, arm and fingers are some of the most common non-fatal injuries that workers suffer on the job.
Every injury should have some level of incident investigation to determine the cause, but it isn’t always done. Without formal training, investigations could have companies chasing causes that do not actually address the root of the incident. If you don’t perform investigations after every incident but you see use of first aid or more serious injuries on the rise, it is likely time to implement an incident investigation policy. A policy will help you uncover and understand all potential risks associated with work activities and take necessary steps to prevent them from recurring. The following techniques should help you refine your overall investigation process and safety policy.
Methodologies in Incident Investigation
There are a handful of proven methodologies for finding out what went wrong after a workplace injury or fatality. When it comes to investigating workplace accidents and incidents, performing a root-cause analysis is vital to preventing similar HSE events. Here are some of the methods applied by employers and safety professionals:
1. Kelvin TOP-SET
Kelvin TOP-SET is an OSHA and ISO-certified incident investigation system used by many licensed safety experts, organizations and global companies. Since 1986, Kelvin TOP-SET has assisted safety professionals and representatives in identifying the causes of an injury or fatality and making recommendations to prevent recurrence. The goal is simple – to save lives.
The approach is built on the idea that by keeping workers safe and maintaining a standard for securing safety performance, a company will become more profitable. The process goes beyond root-cause analysis; it’s a mindset that companies can adopt throughout an investigation. The key indicators the Kelvin TOP-SET methodology focuses on are:
The system is simple and straightforward, making it easy to follow and scalable for all types and levels of incidents and accidents. Extensive training, online courses, software and other helpful resources and tools to support investigations are accessible through the website. Companies may also hire emergency response, investigation and consultancy services directly from Kelvin TOP-SET (highly recommended for just starting with incident investigations, or when an incident involves major bodily harm or significant damage to a facility).
TapRooT is a systematic process, software and training to help you identify the root cause of a problem. It is widely used by governmental and industrial clients across the globe. It teaches the skills and tools needed to thoroughly assess a problem and prevent incidents from occurring.
What sets TapRooT apart from other root-cause analysis methods is that it takes into account years of study of human and equipment performance, making it a custom option for industries in which workers interact with machinery on a daily basis and the likelihood of human error is high.
Companies that swear by this system have reported continuous improvement of their safety performance, equipment reliability and overall profitability. The software has extensive functionalities, including robust equipment troubleshooting technology. There’s also a robust tool built into the system for each phase of the investigation. Here’s an illustration of the seven-step investigation process:
Incident investigators and safety inspectors also use one or a combination of these systems for identifying the immediate cause and contributory factors:
- Logic tree
- Five WHYs technique
- Fault-tree analysis
- Fishbone (Ishikawa) diagram (Six Ms: Man, Materials, Method, Machine, Measurement/Metrics, Mother Nature/Environment)
When do you start investigating?
The best time to investigate is when memories of the incident are still fresh and the scene has not been compromised. This way, the person in charge can gather evidence before materials are lost and file detailed reports from witnesses. If the incident involves a serious injury or fatality, it’s best to secure the site and launch the investigation immediately.
Such incidents will need extensive documentation and evidence to help the investigators uncover the true root cause of the incident and prevent it from happening again. Minor injuries such as sprains, cuts and burns would often warrant less urgency, but it’s advisable to get into it as early as possible. One way or another, small, overlooked injuries will cause a more significant impact on the productivity and well-being of workers. No employer should waste a second when it comes to the safety of its personnel.
What makes a good investigation?
Keep in mind that there’s no one perfect methodology to investigate all workplace incidents. Each worksite has its own unique challenges and risks, which would warrant a customized, well-thought-out policy for carrying out investigations. You can model your policy from these systems and align them with specific activities and environments your workers operate in. As the adage goes, “If you think safety is expensive, try an accident.” This idea rings true on all fronts.
After identifying the root cause, the investigator must make the best recommendation to prevent recurrence. He or she should be in charge of revising hand safety policies and implementing recommendations coming out of the investigation report. After the recommended revisions have been made, the employer needs to communicate the initiative and supply the necessary tools and resources to implement the changes.
A successful investigation follows a long-term, system-wide solution and a reduced number of incidents. Unfortunately, tampering with data and leaping past these critical steps for a quick, less costly fix is probable.
Here is a sample incident of a common hand injury:
Workers Exposed to Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS)
What happened: During a health surveillance program, inspectors fine a company for exposing its workers to vibration, resulting in workers developing or exacerbating existing Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome.
HAVS is a permanent and debilitating condition caused by frequent exposure to vibrating machinery, such as hydraulic compactors, jackhammers and pneumatic tools. Symptoms include numbness, pain, tingling and reduced strength in the hands, all of which could affect the worker’s ability to work and quality of life.
What went wrong:
- The investigation found that the employer made the workers use HAVS-causing machinery without providing adequate training or informing them of the risks to their health.
- The workers are not aware of any working method to prevent or reduce the likelihood of developing HAVS. The company didn’t control or limit the workers’ exposure to vibration.
- There was also a failure to monitor the workers and assess the risks at an early stage. The workers expressed their discomfort with the PPE provided, but no replacements were given.
- The workers were given immediate medical care and put on paid leave until full recovery.
- Workers exposed to HAVS were transferred to tasks that don’t involve handling vibrating machinery.
- The employer conducted hand safety training and switched to PPE that’s more suitable for the job.
- The employer implemented surveillance to limit other workers’ exposure to HAVS, as well as other preventive measures the inspector recommended to ensure compliance.
Control Measures to Prevent Hand-Arm Injuries
Incident investigations shouldn’t stop at identifying the root cause. Companies should take it as an opportunity to fill gaps in their approach to and culture of safety before scrubbing the data. Incident investigations leave one important lesson – accidents, no matter how small, are a consequence of a fault in the system and should prompt employers to re-evaluate the way they approach health and safety.
Most injuries and fatalities are preventable with the stringent adoption of the following measures:
- Safety training and seminars
- Hazard communication
- Surveillance and supervision
- Routine workplace and equipment maintenance
- Organizational support and employee diligence
- Appropriate personal protective equipment
Incident investigations are helpful tools for gaining a wide range of practical knowledge and promoting hand safety on the job. But the real work begins when data is put to practice, and remedial measures take effect once the lessons are learned.
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