Solve the "accident repeater" puzzle

June 1, 2005
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A pattern of repeat accidents or injuries by a small but statistically significant group of workers is frustrating to everyone — managers, safety pros and the employees involved. Reducing accident repetition is especially critical for organizations that are already working thin, or who struggle to be profitable.

The good news is that improvement is possible. For example, Bell Helicopter had an 82-percent reduction in accident repetition after a strategic intervention with a group of repeaters. Other organizations have seen improvements in morale and personal responsibility for safety on the part of everyone after well-implemented repeater interventions.

How do you solve the “accident repeater” puzzle? First, let’s acknowledge the emotional reactions of everyone involved. Frustrations often become personal and can lead to equally emotional responses, which further cloud the issue.

Employees’ reactions can run the gamut from embarrassment, feeling put on-the-spot, defensiveness, anger, to self-blame. Any successful system of dealing with accident repetition must account for emotions involved — not just the mechanics of correction — and have a rational, calm basis.

Tactics that don’t work

The lecture: Lectures often take the tone of parent-to-child scolding. “Pay attention.” “Watch what you’re doing.” “Think before you act.” “Try harder.” Workers push back or withdraw when they feel they’re being treated as dummies or liabilities.

Also, suggesting that repeaters are malingerers who just need a better attitude rarely helps — and often backfires.

The blame game: When a “repeater” is involved in an accident, it’s usually assumed that they are at fault. Getting accurate information in an investigation becomes more difficult as people run for cover. When blame or finger pointing is the order of the day, no one takes personal responsibility. Blaming might feel emotionally satisfying for a brief time but it sure won’t focus an injured person on the critical task of changing their future behavior.

In some cases, blaming can result in the repeater seeing him or herself as clumsy and “an accident waiting to happen,” perpetuating the accident repetition.

Mixed messages: Too often, managers send a mixed message to the “accident repeater:” 1) We care about your welfare and want to do what we can to prevent further injury; and 2) If it happens again, we are going to make you pay dearly for making us look bad.

Threats: Warning a person to shape-up-or-else doesn’t do much good if the person doesn’t know what to do differently — or doesn’t even think he or she needs to change anything in the first place.

Plus, most people find ways of pushing back when they feel they’re being strong-armed. Disciplinary threats may include: sending home letters, docking pay, writing up the worker, public embarrassment and more. There is certainly a place for discipline in safety. But we’ve found if you seek to motivate behavioral change, discipline is best employed as a last resort, not as a first response.

Our experience in turning around “repeaters” has shown that negative approaches rarely have a positive impact on behavior. In fact, the results may inversely lead to lower morale, as well as to employees digging in their heels and not being willing to attempt alternate methods for improving their safety performance.

Tactics for improvement

A strategic and systematic approach is necessary to greatly reduce accident repetition. Such an approach includes the following steps:

1) Develop an accident repetition philosophy and policy. First state that accident repetition is a concern and a condition that you will not accept. Further recognize that repetition can occur to even the best people. Having multiple accidents does not mean something is “wrong” with a person. Still, your policy should make it clear that accidents and injuries involving repeated and willful disregard for safety rules and procedures won’t be tolerated and may result in discipline.

2) Secure leadership support. Company and union leadership can express their leadership by:

  • Signing a statement showing their support for efforts to reduce accident repetition. This should be communicated to the company at large as well as to repeaters.
  • Encouraging those who report to them to also support the system.
  • Issuing a periodic statement that reinforces the system.
  • Checking with the safety department to monitor implementation and results.

3) Publish a clear statement to everyone. A policy statement should communicate that you are:

  • Concerned and watchful
  • Focused on a non-blaming solution
  • Not willing to just live with accident repetition.

It’s critical to let people know that what you are doing is positive, non-threatening and action-oriented.

4) Develop ways to flag problems. Relying on supervisors and managers memories may mean getting skewed or spotty information. Your database of incidents and injuries should readily identify those who qualify as “repeaters” and earmark them for special tracking as they go through your entire program of prevention.

5) Evaluate factors and patterns. When reviewing specific repetition problems, see if any patterns are unique to the individual involved or might be symptoms of larger problems. If a large percent of accidents include the same factors, your prevention intervention should take special effort to address them. Many factors should be considered: weather, machine maintenance, time of day, lighting, noise, training, supervision, work pace, etc.

6) Train supervisors and managers. The attitudes and behaviors of supervisors and managers can make or break your accident repetition prevention program. Their positive attitudes and actions are as important as that of the workers involved. Clearly communicate the philosophy and content of what you are doing. Show managers and supervisors specific ways they can support the program.

7) Work with repeaters. Interventions can range from one-on-one coaching to more formal training on procedures and methods. Individual communications should focus on the specifics surrounding the person’s past injuries or accidents. Turn these sessions into an opportunity for mutual problem-solving to decide how to prevent future accidents.

Group sessions center on general suggestions and group problem-solving/brainstorming on how safety can be better guarded. Part of any meeting needs to be an opportunity for the employee or employees to defuse negative feelings they have toward being identified as a “problem” person. Getting past blame, counter-blame and finger-pointing may take some time, but is essential to success.

Remember, people need specific and practical suggestions for changing behavior. In addition to suggesting physical methods for more safely controlling their bodies, boost skills at directing attention and judgment — both critical to injury prevention.

8) Follow-up. Don’t assume your job is done once a “repeater” has been through the training you provide. Follow-up sends a message to the person that you were really serious about his or her situation. Reinforcement can be informal stop-by chats, or more formal meetings to discuss progress and review suggestions.

Monitor statistics to see if your program is having the desired impact. If the statistics don’t improve, then you know there is more or different work to do. You might take this as an opportunity to involve repeaters in some brainstorming.

Follow-up also includes recognition. If you want people to improve in any area, their efforts must be rewarded. Keep in mind recognition should be given in ways that reward, not punish the individual. For some, receiving praise in front of co-workers would be embarrassing and uncomfortable — not rewarding. Be sensitive to what works with your groups and individuals.

To summarize: Trust and mutual respect form the foundation for an effective accident repetition prevention system. If employees and managers are suspicious of one another, it’s difficult to make progress. Working with accident repeaters can be frustrating, but with the systematic approach above, it’s possible to help “repeaters” become positive forces for safety.

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