Assess what you've done to address those repetitive injuries that hamper different employees. The real question here is, have you been singing the same song with just slightly different lyrics?
- By Robert Pater
- Feb 01, 2018
A friend was telling me about someone in her life who was in a rut of bad things happening. No matter what he tried, he seemed in an endless loop that eventually crashed and burned. Do you know anyone like this? Or someone stuck in this kind of cycle for a period of weeks, months, even longer? This can run from attempting to lose weight, change self-destructive habits, escape ongoing career problems, or dig out of quickmires of toxic relationship misfires. This is immediately frustrating and for some can then fester into anger that blindly drives conditions getting even worse. Alternately, some feel deeply defeated, give up in varying ways, or just go through the motions of trying, but without much hope.
I'm not only referring to a circle of defeat that accompanies individuals in their personal lives. Sadly, these are all too prevalent—I'd bet that many of us have either experienced something like this or could tell head-shaking stories of others who have. But I've also found that, for the most part, we make our own "luck" (as in "the harder you work, the luckier you get"), that when similar events keep happening, it's in large part due to what we're doing the same and to what we're not doing differently.
Similarly in Safety, I've frequently seen patterns of trying-to-do-something-but-getting-nowhere. This can take different forms but, predominantly, many organizations continue to battle the same types of injuries over a long stretch, with apparently little tangible results to show for it. At times these doldrums are blamed on "accident repeaters" (or "frequent fliers," as one organization calls them), certain workers who are often labeled as "accident prone." However, for every company I've seen, "repeaters" account for a very small percent of overall injuries at worst. Even so, they can be addressed and turned around.
However, a larger portion of "endless" problems typically stem from one or two types of injuries that seem to stick. It's as if a company's trying to cross to higher Safety ground but winds up trudging through progress-retarding muck, slow going at best due to these repetitive injuries.
The most important leadership lesson here? Same-old strategies—or minor variations—likely won't overcome same-old injuries. And labeling these as the fault of workers' inability to pay attention or being stupid or not caring about their own Safety might raise leaders' blood pressure but clearly hasn't shown to sustainably solve repetitive injury struggles. However, many mature companies (such as Honda Canada, US Steel, Orbital ATK, Domtar, and many more in a wide array of industries and with vastly different working conditions) have been able to break through previously longstanding injury plateaus. If they can do this, so can you; it requires high-level leadership implementations founded on three principles:
1. Look at the issues coldly and the people warmly. Reduce accident repetition among a small group of individuals. Identify sources that reoccur to them, but without disciplining anyone as an accident "repeater." This is an important strategic distinction. Sometimes one worker can sustain injuries that are different (a lower back strain, then a knee problem, then a slip/fall, etc.) But while these are coded differently, they might stem from one source of weakness: an area not fully healed (which could fishbone back to inadequate medical management or other factors.) Experience with many organizations shows that all kinds of "repeaters" can be quickly helped to improve Safety performance. (For more, see my article "Breaking Through Repeating Problems" in February 2014's Occupational Health & Safety.)
2. Illuminate old patterns. Assess what you've done to address those repetitive injuries that hamper different employees. The real question here is, have you been singing the same song with just slightly different lyrics? For example, moving workers between two apparently diverse sets of tasks might appear to be "job rotation" but really isn't if both these jobs still rely on the same muscle groups (and therefore still contribute to cumulative upper limb trauma). On a broader level, organizations often do the same thing, bringing in Safety interventions that merely swap out something similar for what hasn't previously worked.
Become more attuned to those "invisibles" that fly below observational radar, such as workers holding static positions overlong (standing in place, holding up heavy tools, protracted sighting and reaching overhead, prolonged sitting) where there might be little visible movement but shearing and other imperceptible forces build. Remember that the human body is more suited to position-changing movement rather than maintaining stationary stances. (This is why people "sway" from side to side even when they think they're standing solidly in place, and studies show that older workers sway more than younger ones.)
3. Change the mold. Rather than assuming workers are the bane of Safety performance, strategize how to support them to become personal Safety solutions masters. So if your organization already has clear and adequate policies and procedures, resist the temptation to try to constrain workers with even more of the same. Instead, help them learn and incorporate portable mental strategies and physical methods for adapting to and overcoming a wide range of potential risks. For example, rather than proclaiming that workers shouldn’t carry on stairs (which they might do to get jobs done quickly), help them understand how this action increases risk and then what they might do to be as safe as possible during these actions. Also, find out what they're already doing that helps prevent tenacious injuries.
The bottom line with frequent injuries such as slips/trips/falls, strains/sprains, hand injuries, and driving accidents: transfer mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets that actually place workers more in control of their own Safety. Help workers better understand potential risks from their actions and, rather than ordering "don't do this," help them learn how to greatly reduce injury risks.
High-level leaders realize that significant improvements come only from real changes in thoughts and actions, not just from variations on the same-old songs.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.