A Supervisor’s Guide to Preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities | SOS Podcast

A Supervisor’s Guide to Preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities | SOS Podcast

Across a number of industries, serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) have been trending upwards since the onset of the pandemic.  In this episode, we provide listeners with five suggestions to more effectively manage high-risk tasks where SIF potential exists. 


Episode Transcript

Joe White:

Today we're discussing serious injury and fatality prevention, a topic of growing concern and one supervisors are ideally positioned to impact. Stay with us. Hello, and thank you for joining us. My name is Joe White, and I'm the host of Supervisor Skills: Secrets of Success. The SOS podcast series is produced to create ongoing development opportunities for mid and frontline managers. With each episode, we take on topics of interest and share insights and perspectives for the benefit of our listeners.

In today's SOS short episode, we're talking about safety. We're taking on the topic of serious injury and fatality prevention. Commonly referred to as SIF, will be framing the topic from the perspective of frontline supervisors. It's my sincere hope to leave you with some ideas you'll be able to benefit from in one way or another. Let's get started.

A number of years ago, I was assigned to a project team responsible for decommissioning and removing a 250-foot radial brick chimney. As part of the project scope, explosives were prohibited from use. The chimney was on the chemical plant and was in near proximity to bulk flammable storage. The chimney had to be taken down in sections using jackhammers requiring extensive scaffolding and professionally engineered fall protection systems. My role on the project team was to serve as a safety resource representing the host site. At the time, I had been a safety professional for about five years. And admittedly, I had no experience whatsoever in chimney demolition. As contractors began submitting bids for the job, part of my role was to evaluate their safety performance on projects involving a similar scope of work. In doing so, something I found very unusual began to take shape. Without exception, contractor specializing in chimney or stack demolition have low frequency but high severity loss histories. As was the case, the project of which I'd been assigned eventually ran its course. The job was completed, and all associated work activities were performed without incident or injury. My experience, however, as a safety professional was far from over when the contractor performing the work left the site for the last time.

Within a year, the same crew I had worked with was tearing down a 400-foot chimney in South Texas when a serious incident occurred. As part of the work being performed there, a large section of the chimney fell onto the scaffold. When it did, the work platform and fall protection systems instantly collapsed, taking with it those on it. In an instant, two workers fell to their death. This unfortunate event illustrates the challenge we each share in managing SIFs and is at the heart of our conversation today. Regardless of the industry, there are incidence scenarios involving potentially lethal hazards, just like those described.

Civil contractors, for example, work in and around excavations. Steelworkers are routinely exposed to elevated heights. Electricians deal with high energy and arc flash exposures. Longshoremen are an environment whereby suspended loads commonly and routinely exist. In each case, an incident could instantly result in serious injury or even death. To put this in some sort of perspective, consider the current trend involving SIFs in the construction industry. Through the first six months of 2022, 22 workers have died from hazards involving trench and excavation work in the United States. The majority resulting from cave-ins. To make matters worse, this near record-setting rate of incidents appears to be getting worse and not better. Similarly, fatalities involving motor vehicle accidents reached a 16-year high in 2021. Related causes include speeding, lack of seatbelt use, and distracted driving.

While preventing serious injuries and fatalities are foremost priority for regulatory agencies and safety professionals alike, it's a core responsibility for those in operational management. The ground-level truth is that no one has more impact or influence on workplace safety than frontline supervisors. Providing for the health, well-being and safety of those reporting to you is a prerequisite to meeting any performance-oriented objectives you may have. If results aren't delivered safely, they're not delivered successfully. So what can you do? How do you avoid experiencing these major events? Here are several recommendations specifically designed for serious injury and fatality prevention:


1. Recognize where the potential for SIF exists.

Chances are you have a good idea of where employees face the greatest risk of serious injury or fatality. Documenting these high potential tasks and periodically reviewing them for needed updates is the first step in avoiding incidents involving them. In pulling this list together, don't forget to involve employees, safety resources, and others that could be additive to the process.


2. Establish acceptable terms and conditions for high-risk work.

For each high potential task, countermeasures must be taken to avoid harmful exposures. Countermeasures need to specify the exact requirements, conditions, and means by which task with SIF potential can be performed. When developing acceptable work practices for high potential tasks, they should be constructed using clearly defined non-negotiable terms. When specified conditions can't be met, work should stop until those terms can be met.


3. Communicate expectations.

Whether relying on company procedures or your own terms and conditions for high-risk tasks, communicating expectations of those performing them is critical to avoiding serious injuries or fatalities. Along with setting expectations, supervisors should be clear about the consequences of deviation. Where SIF potential exists, it's not uncommon for companies to terminate employment for first-time offenses. Communicate requirements, verify understanding, and periodically reiterate expectations.


4. Routinely monitor performance.

The opportunity prevents serious injury or fatality is before the chain of events causing them is set into motion. Supervisors play a significant role in identifying, rectifying bad situations and must position themselves in a manner to intervene once they're recognized. Support workers and show value for their safety and wellbeing by participating in high risk tasks as an extra set of eyes. While this isn't always possible, it should be a priority for the limited number of tasks where SIF potentially exist.


5. Hold yourself and others accountable.

SIF prevention requires discipline, dedication, and consistency. It's about doing the right thing over and over and resisting any temptation to take shortcuts regardless of how convenient they may be. This is where supervisors can have a profound impact on the safety, health, and well-being of employees. Lead by example, hold yourself and others accountable, and remain steadfast on expectations involving high-risk task. 

Serious injuries and fatalities have trended upwards in many industries since the onset of the pandemic. In each case, there's human suffering, emotional pain, and loss that can never be replaced. Efforts to raise awareness have impact, but are limited in reach and are often quickly forgotten. The real opportunity to affect change in many instances involves commitment of resources for the purpose of needed intervention. As it specifically relates to SIF prevention, no one is in a better position to fulfill that role than frontline supervisors. It's my sincere hope that as a listener, you're ready, willing, and able to accept the responsibility and challenge of doing so.


Thank you for joining us. I hope this information will help you grow and improve as a supervisor. We look forward to sharing additional podcasts with you in the months ahead and welcome any suggestions you might have or topics you'd like to see us cover.

We're always looking for a guest and enjoy sharing insights and success stories from the field. If that's something you would like to be a part of, just let us know. The SOS podcast series is brought to you by AEU LEAD, a consultancy dedicated to the needs of mid and frontline managers. We value and appreciate any feedback and would encourage you to review and rate your experience with this show wherever you access your podcast. For additional information about AEU LEAD or to follow us on social media, please use the links in the show notes accompanying this episode. That's it for now. Stay safe, and thanks for listening.


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