Safety and the “Near Miss”

Preventing accidents in the workplace starts with recognizing and reporting conditions that present the potential for them to happen.

Every employee wants to work in a safe workplace, free of hazards and unsafe operating practices. Likewise, every employer wants to provide a safe workplace for his or her employees, and avoid the nightmare of worker injuries and their impact on both employee morale and the cost of operations. Employees must assume a degree of personal responsibility to assure their safety, while employers institute policies and procedures that try to prevent unsafe conditions (what could happen), but are really more effective at implementing corrective action once accidents do occur (what did happen).

One approach that has proven helpful in preventing workplace accidents is the recognition and reporting of “near misses.” A near miss can be defined as either an accident that almost happened but did not, or a minor incident that did not require medical attention or time away from work for the employee (often described as a “recordable incident”). However, a near miss could have led to something much worse under slightly different circumstances and, for this reason, this valuable information should be reported.

In a prior column (“Getting Things Done,” March 2014), I wrote about the need for “lead measures” that are predictive of performance. I used the example of the number of machinists trained to fully inspect parts as a lead measure of machined-part quality. Other common lead measures include the percentage of machines receiving preventive maintenance on schedule as a predictor of machine uptime; fully staffed shifts as a predictor of departmental output; the number of accurate machine setup records as a predictor of machine setup time; and changes in the average number of days that invoices are outstanding as a predictor of an organization’s cash flow. A near miss is also a lead measure, as it can effectively predict the potential for a workplace accident in a given area. The good news is that if action is taken to correct the condition that led to the near miss, the chances of an actual accident occurring are greatly reduced.

Some common causes of near misses (or worse) are:

Electrical cords, hoses or flexible tubing on the floor. Each of these could lead to an employee tripping but not falling (which would be described as a near miss), or tripping and falling (an accident that could result in an injury to the employee).

Sharp objects inside a drawer. Seeing such an object would signify a near miss, while anyone reaching inside the drawer and making contact with the sharp object could be the victim of an accident.

Low-hanging objects. Seeing and avoiding such objects would be considered a near miss, while bumping into them could result in a head injury.

An unsecured ladder against a wall. The ladder falling, but not striking anybody or anything would be a good example of a near miss. However, a ladder falling and striking somebody or something could have devastating consequences.

A hot tool or other piece of equipment, such as a heat gun or hotplate, left in the open without a warning tag. Discovering such a situation would be a near miss, while making contact with the hot device could cause severe burns.

Items “temporarily” stored near doorways. An employee may experience a near miss if he or she barely avoids such an item when he or she enters the doorway. An accident could result from a collision with a partially hidden item near the doorway, especially if a motorized vehicle is involved.

Supplies improperly secured in cabinets. If something falls from a cabinet but does not strike anyone, a near miss has occurred. Unfortunately, the next person opening the cabinet might not be so lucky and could get hurt by a falling object.

So how can we go about reporting instances of near misses in the workplace? For one, we must rely on our employees to tell us when they occur. To encourage employees to do this, it must be made clear that there will be no negative consequences for reporting such events. On the contrary, we should thank employees for making an effort to keep everyone safe. Adopting an “everyone needs to return home safe” strategy plant-wide is a way to get employees to “open up” about their personal near misses or those of their co-workers. Reinforcing the message that a near miss for you could be an accident for someone else helps create safety awareness and foster personal ownership of safety in the workplace. 

We should also add a near miss category to our internal safety audits. This will generate a greater awareness of this important lead measure of safety and promote discussion of incidents that almost happened so that action can be taken to assure they do not actually happen.