Dropped Objects – When Injury is Determined by Chance

1281360-beware-of-falling-objects-sign-on-blue-illustration-960x720The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers has released a safety alert to its members concerning a dropped object injury on a U.S. offshore rig.  A link pin weighing one-and-a-third pounds fell about 40 feet.  It had enough velocity to bounce up and hit a worker in the jaw.

It is one more reminder that in the offshore industry, or for that matter any industry where work is done overhead, dropped objects are a real hazard that needs to be managed carefully.   Dropped objects also fall into that category of safety hazards where near-misses are clear predictors of serious or fatal injuries.Heinrich-300-29-1-Model2

The safety profession is sort of reconsidering the relationship between near misses or minor injuries and serious injuries.   For many years, the theory of accident prevention was driven by what is known as the Heinrich pyramid, based on H.R. Heinrich’s observations in the 1930’s that, statistically, for every 300 near-misses industry experiences, there are 29 minor injuries and one fatality.   Given that the 1930’s were sort of the dawning ages of safety management, that was a pretty bold concept.

But it doesn’t hold up well today.  As safety programs have become more sophisticated, minor injury rates have fallen, but there hasn’t been an equivalent drop in fatalities.  The simple truth is that minor and major injuries frequently have different causes and need to be addressed differently.  In fact one Canadian study found that the lost-time claim rate fell by 37.3 percent from 2006 to 2010, while during the same time fatalities rose by nine percent.  Some even argue that too much of a focus on minor injury prevention can blind a company to the big stuff, i.e. the Macondo disaster.

But that is not the case with injuries from dropped objects.  A falling object generates tremendous force and speed. The falling pin in the safety alert took about one-and-a-half seconds to hit the ground; that is not a lot of time to see it, react and move out of the way.  In most cases the object hits the ground harmlessly, but if some unlucky soul happens to be under the object, he is likely to die.  The two factors are where the object falls and where the worker is standing.  In other words, it is a throw of the dice.

Many in the oil and gas industry have taken this to heart and have realized that near misses are a clear indicator of future serious injury or fatalities.  Attack the near miss potential and you are managing the fatality risk.    Through an organization named DROPS, industry has developed a number of programs to address the hazard.  One of the most interesting is a calculator that shows the potential harm of each drop.  Enter the weight and the distance an object falls and it will tell you whether the potential injury is likely to result in:

  •  First Aid (Slight Injury),
  • Medical Treatment Case (Minor Injury),
  • a Lost Time Injury (Major Injury) or
  • a Fatality.

What does this do for safety managers?  Imagine a meeting with the CEO where you say, “we had 10 near misses and no injuries last year.”  Now, imagine that you use the calculator to show the potential outcome of 10 dropped object incidents and you say, “We were just inches away from five fatalities, four major injuries and three minor injuries. ”

That’s how you get the boss’s attention.


Maybe We Should Wrap The Kids in Bubblewrap!

kid-in-bubble-wrapFrom New Zealand comes what appears to be a case of safety protection run amok.   Apparently, the legislature passed a health and safety reform bill, dubbed the “Working Safer: a Blueprint for Health and Safety at Work” framework.  The overall goal is to reduce the  workplace injury and death rate in New Zealand by 25 per cent by 2020.

According to an article in the local newspaper for the town of Hawkes Bay, the bill has schools scrambling to injury-proof their playgrounds.   What has them so scared is a provision that says “those with significant management influence in a workplace may be subject to prosecution and a fine of up to $600,000 and five years in jail if they fail to meet the duty of due diligence.”

The principals looked at the law, looked at their schools and realized that they could be the ones who go to jail.  At least one of the schools has banned kids from climbing trees as a result.   Maintenance crews are apparently using scissor-lifts instead of ladders to clean gutters.

As a guy who’s childhood monkey bars were made of un-padded metal pipes which loomed over a pad of solid cement, I am pretty sure having the chance to break your neck is an important learning experience for a kid.  On the other hand, the chance to play on a scissor-lift when no one was looking WOULD HAVE BEEN AWESOME!

The article also points out that this may all be an over-reaction, perhaps stirred up by those dreaded consultants.  According to one principal, “”Consultants are certainly queuing up to offer their services but I think the most important thing for boards of trustees and principals is not to be caught up in scaremongering and myths which can distract from the realities of [the Act] and the constructive ways that people can improve health and safety at work.”

Glad to know consultants work the same way in New Zealand that they do here in the States.

Tracking SEMS – Finally, One Database That Connects Everything

pinion-logoOne of the biggest complaints I hear about SEMS is how hard it is to keep up with all the moving parts of a functioning SEMS plan.  Its ironic; SEMS standard for Safety and Environmental Management Systems, but companies are finding that managing all the details in their plans is next to impossible.   In some cases they are using two, three and even four different databases to track different elements.

This week, I was fortunate to participate in a demonstration project showing how a SEMS program can be tracked in a user friendly database. The database, called Pinion,  was developed by OQSG, a leader in the pipeline OQ world.   Our goal through the demonstration was to show how the database can be used to manage every section of a company’s SEMS.

The challenge for anyone who has to manage a SEMS program is that there are so many different and potentially unrelated part, but they need to be connected in a logical way. For example:

A change in equipment may prompt a management of change process, which in turn triggers new procedures. Workers may need to be trained and evaluated on those procedures and the maintenance process may change.   And on it goes.  

One reason that safety systems fail is that they become too complex to manage.  The problem with most databases is that they are designed to handle one piece of that – training or audits or equipment.  Companies wind up trying to manage multiple databases or paying the programming costs to make one type of database work for different types of data.

What makes the Pinion system different is that it is built to give customers a maximum amount of flexibility.   the system doesn’t really care whether the company is tracking training, equipment or processes.  Data is data.

SEMS processThe demonstration showed that Pinion can connect different SEMS elements together. Using Pinion a company can:

  1. Identify a piece of equipment;
  2. Pull up the maintenance and inspection records for that equipment;
  3. Access up to date operating procedures for that equipment;
  4. Identify all employees who have been trained and evaluated on those procedures; and
  5. Produce a report that shows that it is complying with the Mechanical Integrity, procedures and training requirements for any equipment it sends offshore.

Why is this important?  Because more and more contractors now realize that they need a SEMS plan that dovetails with their offshore operator customer’s plans.  They are finding that developing the policies is the easy part.  Keeping track of them is the challenge and it is a challenge that the Pinion system seems to be well suited for.

Let me know if you are interested in knowing more about what we are doing to tie company SEMS plans together.


Safety Risk Taking – Its Contagious.

Here’s a problem that safety professionals have seen before: You have four crews.  Three of them follow safety rules and are incident-free.  The fourth crew has incident after incident.   It is a common problem, but solving it can be extremely difficult.

This image shows a region of the brain called caudate nucleus responding to the degree of risk in the gamble. Credit: J. O’Doherty Laboratory/Caltech
This image shows a region of the brain called caudate nucleus responding to the degree of risk in the gamble.
Credit: J. O’Doherty Laboratory/Caltech

A new brain study shows why it happens and why it is hard to fix.   It turns out risk-taking is contagious, like catching a cold.   The study was done by the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, a part of the California Institute of Technology.  Researchers put volunteers under a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in experiments measuring risk and gambling.

To put it in simple terms, when a subject took more risk, a specific part of the brain was triggered and it made it more likely that the subject would repeat that behavior in the future.   What researchers found was that, when a subject watched someone else taking risks, the same part of the brain was triggered and it was more likely to trigger in the future.  In other words,  your brain reacts the same way when you watch risky behavior as when you do something risky yourself, and that brain reaction makes it more likely that you will repeat risky behavior in the future.

So now lets look at the crew with the bad safety record.  The research seems to indicate that if one worker takes too many risks, their behavior will be “contagious.” Other worker see it, their brains react as if they had taken the risks themselves.  It makes it more likely that they will take their own risks in the future.

What do you do about this?  I have heard of companies switching around crews to break the pattern, but in some cases, the problems continue, probably because new workers model their behavior on the risk-takers.

One solution is to use psychology to fight psychology.  Double-down on behavior-based programs.  Reinforce the message that everyone is responsible for safety as a way to protect each other.   But it is just as important for the manager of that crew to watch and listen.   Figure out if one or two crewmembers are the main risk-takers.  Deal with them as individuals.  Make it clear that they need to follow the rules or leave.

This is especially tough when the main risk-taker is also the most skilled worker.  They believe that their skill means they don’t need to toe the line on safety rules and, because they are models for the rest of the crew, their risk-taking is more likely to spread to everyone else.

But the main thing you can’t do is ignore it, because risk-taking, like other contagious diseases, just gets worse if you don’t treat it.

OSHA’s Data-Driven Enforcement

OSHA ReflectionOSHA is trying to stretch its enforcement budget by targeting industry inspections and investigations.  One change is a focus on fewer inspections (OSHA does about 40,000 a year now) and more in-depth inspections.  At the same time, OSHA changed its Severe Injury Reporting Program to require companies to report all hospitalizations, amputations and loss of eye injuries. All told, OSHA is adopting a data-driven approach to its work.

Need proof? Read this report from the agency on a new focus on Nebraska’s meat processing industry.   OSHA says “7.5 percent of meat processing workers experienced recordable injuries or illness in 2014.”   That is a pretty shocking statistic.   OSHA plans to address it with a combination of stepped up enforcement and education.

Companies need to realize that safety enforcement is becoming more and more of a numbers game.  Industries with a lot of  incidents will be under a magnifying glass and the agency is getting better and better at producing the numbers to back its approach.  One of its chief tools is the change in Severe Injury Reporting.  Each OSHA region took the reported injuries for its area and drilled into the statistics.  It gave them a window into the day to day incidents that used to only show up when companies did their annual reporting.  First, the agency was surprised at the volume of amputations that occur in the workplace – 2,644 amputations last year, more than seven a day.  Here’s the breakdown that OSHA’s head gave at a recent conference:  57% of the amputations were at manufacturers and 10% of amputations were at construction sites.   According to at least one OSHA official, the statistics raised awareness of an amputation problem at grocery stores.
OSHA will continue to refine its process and to open the door to increase scrutiny of smaller employers with larger-than-average incidents.  In recent Congressional testimony agency officials asked for the authority to target inspections of small companies with PSM-covered processes and the potential for catastrophic incidents. Current legislation limits OSHA’s ability to inspect businesses with 10 or fewer employees in industries that have lower-than-average injury and illness rates.

Data-mining has clearly come to OSHA and it is changing the way it oversees safety in America.

Pressure Builds For Pipeline Safety

pipelineThe pipeline industry is being buffeted by calls for increased safety from a number of directions.  The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has taken a number of steps to reduce pipeline incidents, but Congressional pressure to do more is growing and frustration with both the agency and the industry is obvious.

The last two weeks have seen a flurry of Congressional hearings and bills aimed at increasing pipeline safety.  K&L Gates law firm did a very good recap of the bills and the general mood of Congress concerning pipelines.  Anyone in the pipeline business needs to keep up on this issue because it is likely to result in broad changes in the way the industry approaches safety.

For PHMSA’s part, the agency has already made a number of changes, the most visible one being that it has doubled the size of its pipeline safety program and hired nearly 100 new field operatives to keep an eye on pipeline projects.  The agency has also launched a reorganization, called PHMSA 2021, designed to help it adapt to changes.   One other measure is that it has worked with industry to create a safety management program.  Right now the safety management system is voluntary.  the head of PHMSA testified before Congress that, “PHMSA fully supports the implementation of RP 1173 and plans to promote industry-wide conformance to this voluntary standard…Moving forward, PHMSA will leverage the powerful working relationships we have with states and other stakeholders to encourage the widespread adoption of SMS.”

A word of caution to industry – we have seen the “voluntary” safety management approach play out before.  If industry doesn’t start using it “voluntarily,” regulations generally follow.

Why the big push?  For one thing, pipeline safety statistics appear to be stuck in place.  Here is PHMSA’s overview of incident in the last 20 years:

pipeline incidents

It doesn’t show the type of progressive reduction that other industries have seen in the past few years.  One note on this – the statistics do not seem to have been normalized to reflect increased construction or maintenance activities.  On the other hand, the pipeline infrastructure is aging and that can boost incidents.

However, two very important drivers are public outcry over some very high-profile pipeline and, most recently, storage incidents and the future growth of natural gas.   The first driver, public outcry, is guaranteed to get the politicians on their soap boxes.   However, it is the second one that has the experts in government looking to the future.   The country is embracing natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil.  The transportation system needs to be able to ensure that all that gas gets to its destination safely.

New OSHA Target: Midwest Manufacturers

OSHA has a new focus areaosha_logo_pub for targeted inspections – Manufacturing industries in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska (OSHA Region 7).   The safety agency has what it calls regional emphasis programs that identify industries with injury and illness rates that are above national averages.

When OSHA adds an industry to its regional emphasis program, companies in that industry are more likely to receive inspections and those inspections tend to be much more detailed.  One of the main criteria OSHA uses in placing an industry on the emphasis program is its Days Away, Restricted or Transferred (DART) rate.  The national DART rate for private industry is 3.3.  The other criteria is what is called serious violation rate per inspection (SVPI).

Five Things Companies Should To to Prepare for OSHA

  1. Aggressive Occupational Health Management – Research has shown that one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce OSHA recordables, like DART, and lower workers comp costs is to help workers stay healthy.  That means strength and functional assessments on the front end to make sure workers aren’t assigned duties that exacerbate pre-existing conditions.  It also means that, if there is an incident, the company helps get workers the right treatment at the right time.  Many incidents are mis-characterized as OSHA recordables because the worker was not given the right level of treatment immediately after the incident occurs.   Lifeline Strategies is working with one of the leaders in integrated occupational health, CORE Health Networks.
  2. Safety Program Management – Start by looking at your overall safety and training, because that is the first thing OSHA will look at.   Many companies that think they have safety programs really just have a bunch of policies gathering dust on the shelf.   Make sure your program is up-to-date and addresses the actual risks that workers face on the job.
  3. Communicate and Train to Your Safety Program – Safety programs are useless if the workers who need to rely on them don’t understand them and follow them every day.  OSHA has realized that and is increasingly looking at management commitment and worker engagement on safety.
  4. Prep For OSHA Inspections – Some companies with great safety records can look very bad in an OSHA inspection if they don’t know what to expect.  Make sure safety professionals and management know what takes place during an OSHA inspection, what inspectors will want to see and management’s responsibilities under the law.  It may be worth holding a surprise inspection drill.
  5. Understand Changing OSHA Requirements – The rules on what needs to be reported, when and how to follow-up have changed and will change again in the next few months.  Companies that didn’t know about the changes or ignored them have been hit with thousands of dollars of fines.

If you need help with any of these recommendations, contact us at info@lifelinestrategies.com.

According to its criteria, OSHA will target the following industries in those states:

For DART rates

  • food
  • nonmetallic mineral products
  • fabricated metal products
  • machinery
  • computer and electronic products
  • furniture and related products (337).

For SVPI data

  • beverage and tobacco products
  • wood products
  • printing and related support
  • primary metal
  • miscellaneous


Safety Ethics: Space Shuttle Challenger

shuttle (2)Safety professionals are called upon to make tough choices.  They are usually successful in arguing their case.  Sometimes they are not.  A recent pair of stories on NPR highlighted the cost of taking a stand.  They looked at an engineer who warned NASA that it was too dangerous to launch the space shuttle Challenger.  His warning was overruled and, 30 years later, he still feels guilty that he wasn’t able to stop the liftoff:

You can find the first story here.

The second story just aired today.  The first report received so much response that the journalist went back and talked to the engineer again.

That story is here.

They both should be required listening for anyone looking to go into the safety profession.