Chasing The Elusive ‘Zero Incidents’

A Study Of OMG Midwest Employees Shows They Prefer Face-To-Face Communication and Safety Training Where Small Group Discussion Can Take Place.

By Joe McGuire


This is the first of a two-part article about safety training focusing on a study of OMG Midwest employees. – Ed.

There is little doubt responsible companies in the construction industries attempt to provide their employees with a safe environment in which to work. They also provide educational opportunities or training needed to help employees perform their work-related tasks in a manner that will prevent accidents, injuries or deaths, but unwanted events continue to occur in the workplace.

As a result, companies always seem to be searching for a program, a process or that “silver bullet” that will help them create a workplace where neither an accident occurs nor an employee injured. A great deal of time and money are spent on these efforts, yet accidents, which result in damage to equipment or injuries and fatalities, continue to occur in the work place.

A review of statistics provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), reveal the number of work related injuries and fatalities has remained almost unchanged for the past five years (2009-2013). Representatives from governmental agencies, insurance carriers and individual construction companies review accident investigations to determine causes or identify trends in an attempt find programs or processes which can be used to eliminate or reduce the number of unwanted incidents in the work place.

Safety managers, insurance company loss-control personnel and representatives from both MSHA and OSHA agree there are many reasons why the causes, trends and number of accidents and incidents seem to be unchanged. They have determined, among the leading causes for these remaining unchanged, come from a failure to conduct high-quality risk assessments or do needed task training in the workplace.

In his keynote address at the 2014 MSHA TRAM Conference in Beckley, W.Va., Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph A. Main stressed the significance of providing employees with educational opportunities to help them understand and conduct quality risk assessments and the importance of doing task training. By having employees learn how to conduct good risk assessments in the workplace and do task training when needed, Main believes the trends and frequency of accidents, injuries and fatalities can be reduced.

Guy Chenard, in his article titled “Best Practices for Conducting Workplace Risk Assessment,” suggested many of his accident investigations found that they “could have been prevented had the workers and supervisors clearly understood and evaluated the risks involved in their work. This would have enabled them to better plan for the job and address the hazards with appropriate controls.”

He also believed “many workers have had hazard awareness training and are able to identify specific hazards in the workplace that could expose them to harm. However, they don’t necessarily understand or evaluate the risk of injury that is involved with the job. They also do not properly address changes in the work that may impact the risk.”

Recent research conducted by MSHA indicated more than 1,060 fatalities occurred because “[task training] is conducted in a haphazard manner or is completely ignored as essential training for the safety of both new and experienced miners. Common impediments to effective task training are outdated training plans, poor training methodologies, and/or the presence of a contaminated or toxic safety culture,” said Mark W. Lipe, Mine Safety and Health Specialist –Training.

It would seem, if task training and risk assessment education are going to be used to increase employee awareness and be truly effective, a company’s safety program must be evaluated and if any of the impediments identified by Lipe are discovered, they should be addressed. Reviewing and updating a company’s training plan to ensure that it is of value and from which employees will gain new, useful and useable information can be accomplished in a relatively short time. In a like manner, evaluating how training is delivered, whether it gets employees engaged and is measured for effectiveness can also be done relatively quickly. However, developing a positive safety culture can take much longer.

In “Safety Culture in the Workplace,” Heidi Cardenas wrote: “There are many obstacles to creating a safety culture, but the main obstacles are lack of management support, and fear and lack of trust. Safety must be communicated from the top of an organization down as a priority at least equal to, if not more important than, production and profit. If not, a true commitment to safety will be lacking. Safety culture development must begin with management support and trust. Good communication and implementation facilitate success.”

In the article “Six Steps to Building a Safety Culture,” author Jeff Slusser indicated “it takes years to change the culture of a company and if you take the foot off of the gas pedal, employees will revert back into their comfort zone and your safety process will regress.” He also noted, “Leading this charge on safety is not an easy one, and proper planning must take place in order for success to occur. Understand a safe workplace is not created through posters or procedures. Safety is created through an ongoing process of successes and setbacks. Celebrate the victories and analyze the setbacks to ensure they do not happen again. Developing a process where zero injuries are the norm, is not impossible, nor is it relegated to specific industries. Some of the most labor intensive industries, such as construction and manufacturing, have companies leading the way with zero injury culture.”

If a company is content with its accident and injury rate, to proceed with its current safety program and training may be acceptable and not necessarily bad. But in these cases, the probability of seeing any improvement or reduction in the number of incidents and accidents will be minimal at best.

On the other hand, it is expected that companies not satisfied with the status quo will embrace change and continue to search for “tools” or process to assist them in achieving their safety-related goals and get closer to ending their search for the “elusive zero incidents.”

Developing a strong, positive safety culture begins with a firm commitment and strong message about its importance from senior management. These, coupled with a good safety plan and development of high-quality employee educational or training opportunities, will help in building a strong safety culture. And in almost all situations, as Cardenas said, the communication process is a key element for success. 

The Risk Assessment Process

The risk assessment process is used by employers and employees to identify hazards associated with tasks, projects or a workplace; evaluate the risks related to the hazards and develop practices to eliminate or reduce them. Risk assessments are conducted in order to create a safer workplace.

Because they are an essential part of a company’s safety program, it’s important to conduct risk assessments in the workplace. They help create an increased awareness of hazards and risks associated with them; they help inform employees, contractors, customers and visitors to the site about the hazards and provide them with the best practices or processes they must follow to mitigate or control the hazards. More importantly, conducting risk assessments will help prevent accidents and injuries and provide the information needed for companies to prioritize hazards and measures designed to control or eliminate them.

Task Training

As noted earlier, in more than 1,060 fatalities reasearched by MSHA inadequate or neglecting to provide task training was a factor. Task training is required under MSHA Regulations, but as this research indicates, it is done in a hit-or-miss manner or not provided at all because it “is conducted in a haphazard manner or is completely ignored as essential training for the safety of both new and experienced miners.”

From its research MSHA determined, if the number of fatalities in this area were going to be reduced, they would need to work with mining companies to improve task-training processes. MSHA’s initiative, called “Think TASK Training” focuses on Training, Assessment, Safety and Knowledge.

The initiative brings attention to this important issue by asking questions regarding a company’s risk assessment process:

  • Training:
    • Is there an adequate task-training program in place? 
    • Have employees received task training on new tasks and machines?
    • Is task training performed on all maintenance activities?
  • Assessment:
    • Have all tasks been assessed?
    • Have owner’s manuals been used to determine specific hazards?
    • Have checklists, job safety analysis or similar documents been developed?
  • Safety:
    • Do miners have the skills necessary to perform all tasks in a safe manner?
    • Is there adequate time set aside to complete task training?
    • Has task training been completed in a “non-production” setting?
    • Is there supervised practice “during” production?
    • Can miners perform pre/post operation checks on equipment?
    • Can miners demonstrate proper start-up and shutdown procedures?
    • Can everyone demonstrate safe operating procedures?
  • Knowledge:
    • Do task trainers have the knowledge to perform adequate task training?
    • Is there consistency between trainers?
    • Are task trainers evaluated to ensure all health and safety aspects are taught?
    • Since the initial task training was conducted, has there been any follow up with previously trained employees?

“Think TASK Training” reinforces the importance of doing high quality risk assessments. Assessing risks associated with performing work related tasks, before beginning them, must be done if the number of accidents, incidents, injuries and deaths at mine sites is going to be reduced.

Communication And Risk Assessments

Poorly executed practices that some employees use to identify risks and hazards in the workplace are generally found to be a direct cause of unplanned incidents, accidents or injuries. Companies ought to coach their employees to further develop the skills needed to recognize risks and hazards before they begin their daily tasks and any which might be encountered during the their workday or shift. When risks and hazards are identified, employees can develop processes to eliminate them and thus minimize the potential negatives effects they pose.

How employees communicate the workplace risks and hazards they identify to their co-workers is a major part of risk-assessment process. Communication processes contribute substantially to actions employees take to mitigate risks and hazards. By identifying and understanding the preferred communication processes employees use in the workplace, training and educational efforts can be designed which will improve their ability to recognize and manage risks or hazards they encounter during the work day.

This study, modeled after one that was done in 2007 by Jim Joy, was undertaken to identify the communication process employees of OMG Central West Division use in the workplace. In addition, it was designed to measure that communication process employees perceived to be the most effective so that future training or educational efforts can be developed and delivered using processes that are most acceptable to them. By delivering training that fits their preferred communication system, it its expected employees will understand, learn and retain information that is provided to them. When these occur, they will be more prepared to conduct quality risk assessments and act upon hazards they encounter in the workplace.

Joy’s 2007 study found “the stated preference for face to face or on the job delivery of training was not surprising, given the overwhelming preference for verbal communication exhibited by all respondents … during the shift.” The data generated by the current study replicated the results found in the Joy study indicating face-to-face conversations and crew meetings are the preferred ways to communicate with team members in the OMG workplace.

Just as in the Joy study, this finding comes as no surprise. Just because the study indicates these are the preferred communication processes, does not mean they are always used since most communication involving field personnel tends to follow the “top-down” model leaving very little room for “group discussion or team involvement.”

In the second part of this article, specific results of the study are revealed.

For the past 30 years, Dr. Joe McGuire has worked in the construction aggregates industry dealing primarily with the planning/zoning process, environmental permitting, compliance issues and educational/training, while also participating in many aggregate mine-development and permit requests at the county level, which required involvement in the public hearing process.

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