Brian came into the dispensary with a red rash on his arm. He had been handling some bags of chemicals earlier in the day and thought the chemicals may have caused the rash. After being treated with a salve, he went back to work. As I filed Brian's injury I reviewed his folder. He had been injured five times in three years. Two of the injuries- stitches to his right leg after a fall and a cut on his right index finger-were OSHA recordables. The others had been first aid cases.

Brian is a repeat offender. That sounds harsh but it describes him perfectly.

Do you work with someone who gets hurt often? Many times a small percentage of your workforce will account for a large amount of your injuries.

If a site has 100 employees, every recordable injury would cause its rate to increase by one at the year's end. Four OSHA recordables would result in a 4.0 OSHA incidence rate. If five of those 100 employees are having recordable injuries at least every other year, you can see what a big impact they can make.

When a company's incidence rate is stuck on a plateau, it's a challenge to make significant improvements. One area to review is employees who have repeat injuries. Showing management the impact of repeat offenders on incidence rates can give you the support to address the issue.

Possible causes

Why do some people have more injuries than others? There can be many reasons:

1. Repeats may do a better job of reporting injuries.

2. A physical problem may be hindering their performance.

3. A behavioral problem could be involved, such as-

  • Always being in a hurry;
  • Not wearing personal protective equipment;
  • Poor job planning;
  • Ignoring standard procedures.

4. They could be employees who are having problems in other areas of job performance.

5. Repeats may not be able to recognize hazards.

6. Training could be a factor.

Identifying repeat injuries

You need to take several steps to identify employees who are having repeat injuries:

  • First, conduct a general review of incident data. Decide how many years you want to review. Establish criteria an individual must meet; for example, anyone with three injuries during any five-year period.
  • Look for general similarities among the employees you've identified:

Are they predominately from one department or job class? If so, identify the specific problem. One area may be more hazardous than others, or that area may not be following safety procedures.

If most repeats are new employees, you might be looking at a training issue.

Are the injuries of the same type? If so, you need to investigate this particular problem.

Does the percentage of first aid cases versus recordable injuries match the rest of the site's data? Your group of repeats could be having even more injuries and only reporting the severe ones, or they may simply be doing more reporting.

Are the injuries a result of not wearing personal protective equipment?

Now it's time to look at each individual injury. First, eliminate any injuries that were beyond the employee's control. If Brian was walking into the plant and a bee stung him, causing an allergic reaction, I wouldn't say that meets the criteria of a repeat injury.

After you take these steps, you'll have identified a small percentage of your employees who account for more than their share of injuries. What percentage is too much? It's hard to say, but I've seen sites where two percent of the workforce accounts for 40 percent of all injuries.

What can be done?

We often ignore the problem because identifying repeat offenders is very sensitive, possibly leading to charges of discrimination or harassment. But when an employee has multiple accidents, the chances of a severe injury increase. We can't ignore the pattern.

Employees who meet your repeat-injury criteria should attend training. Explain the reasons for the training. Use actual injury data for all classroom activities.

The training session should cover these steps:

  • Discuss behaviors and how they contribute to injuries.
  • Review the injuries that are occurring throughout the plant and present an overview of the root causes. Emphasize those that are behavioral.
  • Review typical accidents. Continue to ask why something happened until the root cause is identified.
  • Present the percentage of plant injuries occurring to employees with repeat injuries.

Have each employee review his or her own injuries to identify the root cause. Then, have participants break into pairs and share their findings. Next, review action plans and how they are developed. Have each individual develop an action plan to work on when they return to their job. Now you have given employees the knowledge and resources to work injury-free.

Most companies keep injury victims anonymous. Anonymity is a good policy, but in the case of repeat injuries, we need to address the individual. You do run the risk of driving injuries underground. Employees might respond, "I'll never report another injury." But remember, the majority of your employees have been reporting injuries and working safely all along.

By Bob Brown, a behavioral training coordinator for a leading Fortune 500 chemical company. Bob is also owner of the consulting firm, Blue Collar Safety, and can be reached at (281) 480-1076.