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Chasing Zero

No one wants to see anyone get hurt on their construction site. Many contractors have a stated goal of driving their injury rates to zero. Some go even further, aiming for zero first aid cases, zero incidents or even zero close calls.

But what may not be considered is the effect that chasing zero can have on safety. One possibility is that injuries are less likely to be reported. It’s well-documented that construction injuries are underreported. If contractors are bent solely on improving their injury rates, workers could be afraid to report injuries for fear of retaliation or due to incentive programs that reward workers who don’t get hurt.

Besides being illegal, underreporting is counterproductive for companies that truly want to prevent injuries. The goal of reporting (including minor incidents or close calls) should be to collect information that can be used to prevent future injuries. If companies don’t keep this goal in mind, the quest for zero can set them up for failure.

The risk of chasing zero is that it’s a measurement of the past, not the future. Having zero injuries for a period of time – whether it’s a week, a month or the duration of a project – isn’t a guarantee against future incidents. This is especially true in construction, where the work environment changes so rapidly.

While we want to believe that every injury is preventable, some are beyond our control, such as sudden changes in the weather or simple human error. While worker training and experience can help reduce the risk for error, they can’t eliminate it completely. Our goal should be to make sure that when people do make mistakes or unpredictable events occur, the consequences are not serious and any injuries are minor.

As the number of serious incidents falls toward zero, there is less data to use for prevention, creating a sort of catch-22. Some companies fill this information gap by also collecting data on close calls or “near misses.” Rather than obsess over getting to zero incidents, the more productive path is to focus on a top-notch incident investigation process.

Incident investigations must focus on identifying the root causes without blaming workers for reporting in the first place. If workers feel they will be singled out and punished, they are far less likely to come forward. Companies with progressive disciplinary policies, which punish workers for even minor rule infractions, may be creating an atmosphere that shifts the focus away from preventing injuries and gathering useful information. A better method is for companies to hand out “Lessons Learned” after incidents. This not only shows safety is a priority, but also creates opportunities for change.

Construction safety is not as simple as a cookbook, where one follows the rules and doesn’t get hurt. It is a complex problem that must be viewed as a process of continuous improvement. When the true goal is the safety of everyone on site, reaching zero is a temporary reprieve – not an end in itself.

[Scott Schneider is the Director of the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division.]

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