Major Risk: Moving From Symptoms to Systems Thinking
- Jim Loud (James Loud Consulting)
- Document ID
- American Society of Safety Engineers
- Professional Safety
- Publication Date
- October 2016
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 50 - 56
- 2016. American Society of Safety Engineers
- 0 in the last 30 days
- 51 since 2007
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- The U.S. is suffering high incidence of catastrophic incidents and worker fatalities despite lower incident rates overall.
- Traditional worker-focused tactics and zero goals are not protecting against more serious incidents.
- Major risk is an organizational problem, not a personal problem.
- The safety practice must move from symptoms thinking to systems thinking to effectively address major risk and sustainable safety.
The early industrial revolution was hard on U.S. workers. In 1912, some estimates for work-related fatalities totaled more than 20,000, or roughly four times more than occur today. Despite the appearance of improvement, the country’s fatality rate has remained relatively flat for years. The 4,679 fatalities recorded in 2014 were the highest since 2011 (BLS, 2015), while incident rates overall have dropped significantly. The U.S. fatality rate is now considerably higher than many developed countries: three times higher than that of the U.K. (Mendeloff & Staetsky, 2013). Concurrently, the average cost of a workers’ compensation claim has increased significantly (Manuele, 2008).
Is the safety practice overemphasizing personal injury incident rates at the expense of less frequent but more serious incidents? Is the relentless emphasis on ever-lower numbers and zero goals suppressing incident reporting and leading OSH professionals to manage the numbers rather than managing safety holistically? Is the focus on worker behavior keeping us from recognizing and acting on more fundamental root causes? This article addresses these questions, describes how the profession reached this point, and presents a more productive path forward.
Three widely publicized tragedies are painful reminders of the need for a new look at how to deal with serious risk and safety in general.
Texas City RefineryImmediately prior to the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 and seriously injured nearly 200 others, the BP facility’s reportable incident rate was at an all-time low and was just one-third of that for the refinery industry (Hopkins, 2010). The refinery had received numerous internal safety awards and increased bonus pay as a result. Many of the workers killed in the explosion had just returned to their workstations after attending a luncheon celebrating their “excellent” safety record (CSB Investigation Findings, 2012).
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