Report Near-Misses

George KennedyCompanies often miss opportunities to prevent future accidents and improve their safety and health programs because they do not have a near-miss reporting system. A near-miss reporting system is a proactive system used by many award-winning companies to prevent accidents.

A near-miss has been defined by the safety community as an unplanned event that could, had circumstances varied slightly, have resulted in an injury, illness or damage to materials or property. Some people call this lucky, others call it a close call or narrow escape, but regardless of what you call it, if reported and handled properly, a near-miss is an opportunity to make your company’s workplace safer.

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Example: Joe was working near the excavator, bending down while cutting a pipe with a cut-off saw. The operator did not see him as he swung the excavator around barely passing the bucket over Joe. Bill was standing nearby and saw this happen but just continued doing his work without reporting the near-miss incident. Was this really a near-miss? Should it have been reported? The answer is yes to both questions. It was a near-miss because it could have resulted in a serious accident or death if the chain of events had been slightly different — for example, if Joe had stood up at that moment — and there is no question that it should have been reported.

When situations like this are reported, companies are given a second chance to take action to ensure things like this never happen again, thereby reducing the potential for a future occurrence that may not result in the worker being so fortunate. The solution could be as simple as reminding workers to always work outside the swing radius and never turn their backs to the equipment. Future incidents can be avoided if situations like this are reported and the company has the opportunity to share the information with their employees or take other action.

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Thankfully, this situation is a near-miss and not a catastrophe. Everyone who works in the construction industry knows that incidents like Joe and the excavator happen all the time. So why aren’t they reported? The answer is very simple:  Many construction companies have not established a near-miss reporting system.

Establishing a Near-Miss Reporting System

Employers should establish a policy and procedures that are communicated to all employees. With the help and support of all managers, foremen and supervisors, workers should be educated about what is considered a near-miss. Everyone should understand how reporting near-misses can result in an opportunity to identify and control hazards and prevent accidents.

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Reporting systems need to be non-punitive and, if desired, anonymous. Knowing who reported the near-miss and the names of people involved is not as important as knowing what happened so similar situations can be prevented before an accident occurs.

Reports should be thoroughly investigated to identify the root cause of the near miss, i.e., the weakness in the safety process that was responsible. After the investigation is complete, the results should be used to improve operations and reduce risk.

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Managers and workers should be informed about why near-miss reporting is necessary, the important role it plays and how incidents should be reported. It is very important to make sure everyone understands that near-miss reporting is not punitive — you are not out to assign blame. Rather, the goal is to remove a hazard and reduce risk. Be sure to include this training as part of new employee orientations.

Reporting near-misses — even anonymously — leads to a safer workplace. The key elements to a successful near-miss system include:

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Training/Communication — Managers and workers must understand what a near-miss is, the purpose of the near-miss reporting system, its importance, how the information reported will be used to improve safety practices and not to punish managers or workers.

Ease of Use — Keep it simple, don’t make it complicated. If you want the process to be used, provide simple forms in multiple languages if necessary and make them readily available. Provide a simple method for submitting them, such as a suggestion box, company mail or pre-stamped envelopes.

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Take Action — Make it known what action has or will be taken regarding a situation that was reported through the near-miss reporting system.

As the results of implementing a near-miss reporting system start to take hold, be sure to let employees share in the success and reinforce the value of their contributions. Although you can make near-miss reporting anonymous, some companies make it optional and provide some form of incentive or positive reinforcement to employees who contribute. If individuals want to be anonymous, so be it, but find a way to credit those anonymous people who contributed to the successes of the near-miss system. They will know who they are and will take pride in what they have done.

Employee participation is a basic component of a successful safety management plan and goes a long way toward building a constructive safety culture within the organization. By creating an open culture whereby everyone can contribute and share in making the workplace safer, all employees and the company will benefit.

George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.