In the past few years I’ve been involved in helping to build a self-sustaining behavior-based safety process with a large industrial company. Part of that process involved reviewing recent accidents, looking for patterns that might direct the approach we would take in applying the behavioral tools. From the client’s perspective, the accidents were “all over the map”:
  • Some happened to employees who had only been on the job a couple of months, while some happened to the “top gun” 30-year employee.
  • Most involved hourly workers, but some happened to lead men and supervisors.
  • Some happened in small shops while others were in larger operations.
  • Some happened on day shift, some at night.
  • There were strains, sprains and pulls; slips, trips and falls; cuts, breaks — you name it. At a surface level, it all looked like a real grab bag.
How to make sense of that?

Searching for clues

As I scanned the accident data, I noticed a couple of potentially important and relevant patterns. We worry about the new guy making a mistake because he doesn’t know better, and conversely we expect the experienced “senior resource” to know better. But that very employee, the old hand, is also at risk, especially when doing a task he/she has done many times before.

In our case, there was indeed a cluster of accidents involving these top gun employees, the ones you might reasonably expect to be the least likely to get hurt.

Another pattern I observed in the accident data was that while there were indeed all kinds of injuries — from cuts, broken bones, back strains, nails in a foot, and everything else you could think of — many of these accidents happened while mounting or dismounting mobile equipment, just climbing up and climbing down. Another regularity, somewhat confounded with years of service, was that a disproportionate number of the accidents involved older employees. And, more than a few of these older employees were, as they said, “big fellas.”

Everyday lifting

With these leads in mind, I sat in on an accident review. It turned out to be one of the incidents in which a highly experienced, senior employee was doing something routine — in this case helping a vendor lift a heavy machine component off the bed of a pickup truck. As the employee grappled with the oddly shaped metal component, he heard a tearing sound — he said he thought he had caught his shirt and torn it on an edge of the machine part or the truck. In fact, the tearing sound was made by a major tendon in his arm separating from the bone. Surgery was required, and his lost-time accident spanned ten workdays.

During the review, the safety team asked many good questions. “Did you think about this, did you remember to do that?” Being well-versed in the behavior-based approach, they asked the right questions about awareness and mindfulness, communication, lifting technique — all the elements that are part of the typical chain-of-events approach to understanding what happened and why.

But in this case, there were no obvious, glaring behavioral errors. The gentleman in question, a solid performer, said that it never occurred to him that he couldn’t lift the machine component without risking injury. He had lifted that amount of weight many times, over many years.

Too many doughnuts at safety meetings over the years can take a toll…

A tough message

The doctor who did the diagnosis of his injury indicated that there was age-related degeneration of the tendon. A relatively routine physical act, carried out in a familiar way, but by an older body, led to an accident.

I reconsidered the data from the spate of accidents that had occurred over the previous months. Indeed there was a cluster of accidents involving seasoned veteran employees doing something they did every day, like going up and down a ladder, except that this time they stepped down and blew out a knee. That extra 25 years (and in some cases, an extra 50 pounds) made the “old move” risky.

One of the tough messages for 40- and 50-somethings in the workplace is that we are not bulletproof and 10-feet tall. As we age, things the body used to do can’t be done in the same way as easily or safely as in the past. The risk is that the mind continues to write checks that the body can no longer cash. Things that you did at age 20 and 160 pounds simply have to be done differently if they are to be done safely at age 50, with a bit more padding around the middle.

As a first-wave baby boomer, I know I sometimes don’t act my age in terms of what my body will and will not tolerate. At this stage of my life, I have to pay attention to my energy and conserve it. And I have to pay attention to my ability to simply pay attention, way more so than when I was young. If I violate realities of “advanced middle age” I do so at great risk to myself.

Small errors, serious consequences

Especially if you work in an environment where small errors can have serious consequences, look at the age of your workforce. Many production environments today have a workforce that is “about 45.” Downsizing, hiring freezes, early-retirement packages, etc., have conspired to give us the 40-something as the typical worker. It is a crucial responsibility of the safety professional to help the aging workforce understand the added risk that their age and physical limitations impose on them.

It’s not just the work per se that makes for risk, nor is it just the behaviors per se that make for risk. As some of the best thinkers in the safety field have pointed out, it is the intersection of the work (conditions) and the behaviors (safe or unsafe acts) with the characteristics of the person, including prominently their age and physical condition. Other things equal, being 50 and acting 20 can be a sure-fire formula for injury.

In the positive safety culture, we must encourage that worker preparing to help off-load a large machine component of unknown weight to stop and think, and then “get that hoist” and “ask for help,” rather than take a risk, especially when middle age is a critical factor.