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Leading or lagging, near misses indicate workplace safety risks

Leading or lagging, near misses indicate workplace safety risks

There is plenty of debate about whether near-miss reports related to workplace safety hazards constitute leading or lagging indicators, but stakeholders agree that the most important issue is the identification and correction of hazards.

A near miss is an unplanned event that could have, but did not result in an injury or illness. These near-miss reports fall into a gray area, as some stakeholders see them as lagging indicators that generally track worker exposures and injuries that have already occurred, while others view them as leading indicators that reflect the potential for injuries and illnesses that have not yet occurred.

“In my mind, it doesn't really matter if it is a leading or a lagging as an indicator,” said Margaret Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO in Washington. “You need to look at both. You want to look at where incidents have occurred, and you also want to look at hazards and exposures. A near miss is an indicator of exposures. That's what you want to control: hazards and exposures.”

In the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposed update to its safety and health management guidelines, the agency places the number of hazards and close calls/near misses reported in the leading indicator category and encourages employers to track such leading indicators.

The majority of employers are using lagging indicators such as incident rates to measure the success of their ergonomics programs, but ergonomics professionals want to shift toward using leading indicators, and 41.3% of these professionals want to use near miss/hit reports, according to Aon Risk Solutions' 2015 Safety Management Function: Current State of Ergonomics Programs report.

“I don't need someone to be hurt, I don't need someone to be injured, to find out that it's not a good fit,” said Rachel Michael, senior consultant and certified professional ergonomist with Aon Global Risk Consulting in Salt Lake City. “Some people call them near hit, some people call them near miss, and it really depends on the sophistication of the organization as to how leading or trailing they are.”

For example, one large distributor includes potential hazards such as dust on a shelf that could require the use of eye protection or loose hair that could get caught in machinery in its compilation of near-miss reports, she said.

“This would be where you have a culture that really does look at near misses and near hits as a leading indicator of risk,” while other companies might view near misses more akin to situations such as an employee dropping a box that just missed injuring their foot, Ms. Michael said. “Those are going to be left to interpretation or culture.”

The Lego Group's U.S. operations has seen a significant and welcome spike in the number of near-miss incidents reported — to 51 in the first half of 2016 from nine in 2014 — as part of its employee engagement efforts, Daniel Hayden, Lego's senior health and safety consultant in Enfield, Connecticut, said at the American Society of Safety Engineers annual conference in Atlanta last month. Once the company convinced its employees they could report near misses and simplified the process for doing so, it involved them in the development of solutions to fix the hazards identified in these reports, he said.

However, Caterpillar Inc. transitioned to “proactive” and “positive” leading indicators such as audits with a safety focus and safety blitzes and away from “reactive, negative” indicators such as near-miss reports because managers felt like they were being interrogated by senior leadership when delivering near-miss reports, which “wasn't driving the right behavior,” said Anthony Whirley, group manager for Caterpillar in Booneville, Mississippi.

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