Imagine a facility that has not been well maintained. The roof leaks, the supporting concrete is spalling, the suspended ceiling is overloaded with equipment, and maintenance personnel are too busy to know that the ceiling in your office is near the end of its useful life.

You're oblivious to the growing hazard above your head and the assorted behaviors that have allowed it. You decide to get a cup of coffee. As you walk out into the hall, the ceiling falls in behind you. Wow! Were you lucky!

Rewind the tape. As you are about to leave to get coffee, the phone rings. You pick it up just as ceiling, equipment, and concrete chips fall around you. You pull yourself out of the debris, bruised, cut, dazed. What bad luck!

Same scenario. Same causes. Same everything except for the ringing of the phone - an event you did not and could not control. If you managed to avoid injury, it was luck, nothing more.

Missing the root cause

Day after day, minor injuries, property and product damage events, "near hits" and close calls take place that rarely make a ripple with management.

Significant injuries attract a different response. Management descends enmasse with tough questions. Orders are barked, reports demanded and quick fixes expected. Safety improves for a while until memories fade and business as usual returns. The minor events begin again with little notice. This is a classic out of control process - a process driven by chance!

Yes, chance! This is a safety system reacting to the consequences of serious incidents rather than addressing the underlying causes beforehand. Simply put, behind those injuries are behaviors and conditions - factors that are observable, traceable and fixable to reduce the probability of the injury event occurring.

Timing and distance

Once hazard control has failed and the injury-producing event is underway, the outcome is largely driven by timing and distance. If a person falls on stairs or walking down an aisle, the resulting injury depends on the force with which he/she contacts the ground, the point of contact, the position of body parts, the density of the surface, and a variety of other factors that we must attribute to luck or chance. Our ability to control the outcome ended when the fall began. The time to get excited, to demand safety improvements, to hold people accountable, is when we first notice conditions or behaviors that can result in a fall.

Bad luck - chance - can never be used as the excuse for an occupational injury or illness event. Focus instead on the systems in place. Providing sound training, essential resources and appropriate motivation to get the behaviors needed at all levels in the organization - all within the framework of a comprehensive safety and health management process - leads to a more predictably positive safe environment.

Changing your luck

In today's workplace, managers, workers, and support staff are busy. In fact, everyone seems to be laden with more work than they can handle and working longer hours. Daily problems are the norm. To suggest taking the time to stop, look and analyze minor injuries, near hits, hazards and at-risk behaviors often doesn't sit well with anyone. But becoming process-driven rather than luck-driven cuts substantially the daily workload. Bringing the process into control can stop "bad luck" events that take time, energy and resources. The major bonus is improved productivity, quality and morale.

I often hear from managers and safety people who concentrate on lost-workday injuries. They're ecstatic when these injuries are reduced substantially and frustrated if they increase. That's like tracking products or services sold and neglecting quality, customer satisfaction, price and all the other things that keep a customer coming back for the long haul. Unless all elements of safety, such as hazards and behaviors and the other pieces of the comprehensive safety process, are examined in unison, it's easy to be fooled. Lady luck may be on your side temporarily, but don't gamble on these odds. Work on prevention and the safety process and concern over consequences will dissolve.