In the real world, injuries sometimes happen, and it should be apparent that all injuries are not created equally. First aid injuries are not as serious as broken bones and broken bones are not as serious as a fatality. Statistics from the BLS point out that injury incidents and fatalities are decreasing in almost every industry, but the fact is when an injury does happen, it is usually more serious. The worst injuries can be those low frequency, high severity incidents that don’t happen very often.  Injuries might indicate that the way we’re trying to control hazards is not as effective as they should be to prevent all incidents.

How to Prevent Injuries

The most commonly used tool to reduce injuries and get the employee involved in safety is the JSA and there is no end to the ways it can be used effectively. But, another tool that has been used forever by safety managers is the hierarchy of controls pyramid. At the top is the most effective control, elimination, and at the bottom is the least effective, PPE. In the middle are other controls, substitution, engineering controls and administrative controls.

Obviously, if we can remove the hazard from a task, we don’t have to do anything else. But as we move down each level of the hierarchy of controls for a task, we introduce more “defeatability” of control and increase our chances of having an incident related to the failure of the control. PPE provides the least control and protection and is the most easily defeated, because a person can simply choose not to use it. But, as you move up the hierarchy, your level of control of the hazard increases and the ability of a person to defeat it decreases.

A little considered fact is that as you move up the hierarchy of controls, associated safety costs go down and profitability goes up. Think about it, if you can eliminate a hazard, you don’t have to do anything else. Your supervisors spend less time monitoring workers for correct PPE use and can spend more time focusing on getting the job done. You may be able to reduce employee training time and PPE costs. Your safety people will spend less time being safety cops to make sure that your signs, warnings and PPE are used and effective and allow them to think of innovative ways to use the hierarchy of controls to find ways to enhance safety and ultimately, your profitability.

Higher levels of control involve less people time and things that require less people time are more profitable. The fact that you can decrease costs and increase profits should be a driving force when you are evaluating a job or investigating an incident. If you can make a task inherently safer, you’ll spend less time on investigating and have more time to focus on getting the job done.

In every task, there is a point where what we would like to do to keep our employees safe and what is feasible meet and using the hierarchy of controls will help you reach that point and may keep you from automatically going to PPE which has the lowest level of control.

We may never get to the point where all work is inherently safe. But we owe it to ourselves, our employees and our companies to use every tool we have available to make the job safer, cut costs and increase profits. After all, that’s really the only reason a company exists in the first place. A company doesn’t stay in business long if it can’t pay the bills.

The time to evaluate your task hazard controls is before you need to use them or before the next project. When you do a job hazard analysis, put a copy of the hierarchy of controls next to it and look at each of the five levels to determine what is most feasible and doable. If you already have a JHA, look at it again with a fresh set of eyes. Require your safety folks and supervisors to look at each task when they’re in the field for ways to move up the hierarchy and take some of the “defeatability” out of the safety controls.

Measuring Safety

Using injury statistics (a lagging indicator) to measure the effectiveness of a safety program is easy but leaves a company open to having more low frequency, high severity injuries. You can’t measure effectiveness merely by using the presence or absence of injury incidents. If a project ends with no incidents, how do you know you weren’t just lucky. but, if the project ends with injuries, then something went wrong and now you have to figure out how to keep it from happening again.

Consider changing the way you think about safety from a lagging indicator, “we had no injuries today” to a leading indicator “What did we do today to minimize risk and prevent incidents?” Put a positive spin on your safety program. Instead of asking how many bad things happened today, ask how many good things happened.

You have to use lagging indicators to provide injury statistics. It’s a fact of life that we still have to measure what has happened, but if you want to know how safe your company is, look at the controls that have been put in place to protect your employees and your company. That’s how you can identify leading indicators and help ensure that your company doesn’t have blind spots that may lead to a low frequency, high severity incident or a catastrophe.

If you have a low frequency, high severity injury, it might be appropriate to bring out the hierarchy of controls chart and review it along with the investigation report to look at the controls you have in place to prevent these types of incidents from happening and remove luck from being one of the factors in your safety program.

In a world where profit margins are getting smaller and contractors face greater competition and tighter schedules, spending time to look at how injuries are prevented is well worth the effort. 

If your safety program identifies how you’re using the hierarchy of controls to prevent injuries and help enhance your clients reputation and profitability then you have an edge over your competition.  And everyone can use a little edge, especially if it doesn’t cost anything.

Marshall Crum is a retired safety professional and writes articles on weight loss, fitness and other topics of interest.

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