Using Near-Miss Reporting to Prevent Future Accidents

It’s important to fully exploit every accident-prevention strategy at your company’s disposal. Unfortunately, some construction employers have no near-miss reporting system in place, or neglect to put the necessary energy into convincing employees to faithfully report near-miss occurrences (or to follow-up with training, when near-misses are reported).

A near-miss, narrowly defined, is an occurrence that could have produced an injury (or property damage or other loss) but did not. If reported to management and investigated, often a near-miss will lead to changes in procedures, greater training emphasis, or stricter enforcement of company safety rules, and prevent a recurrence that could result in serious injury or other harm. In investigations if fatalities or other cases involving serious bodily harm, it is frequently found that the occurrence was preceded by prior incidents in which safety rules were ignored, and a near-miss occurred, but through dumb luck, usually, with no injuries.

Since effective harm prevention, although involving the rank and file, requires leadership usually from the top down, if you are an owner, officer, safety manager of field supervisor in a construction enterprise, you want every near-miss to be reported. The point must not be to identify and punish offenders — persons reporting near-misses should be allowed to do so anonymously. Instead, the point is to identify the weak spots in your procedures, or equipment, or training, or supervision, so that today’s near-miss doesn’t become tomorrow’s fatality, mass casualty event, or life-changing injury.

Of course, every report of a near-miss should bring about an appropriate level of investigation, and an analysis of what you can do to improve safety systems, better control hazards, reduce risks and reduce risk-taking among employees.

Company-wide, in addition to a top-down commitment from ownership and management, effective safety policy requires the company to hire, train and retain sober, safety-conscious workers, but especially field supervisors who know all of the applicable rules, don’t cut corners, and won’t overlook violations when seen to occur. Frankly, it is challenging indeed to train every construction worker in the full range of standards that apply to their jobs. Conscientious, thoroughly trained field supervisors are probably your best bet to minimize both OSHA citations and injuries to employees.

In addition, of course, time and money must be devoted to training and the provision of adequate and well-maintained equipment.

At the individual level, once a construction worker has developed the necessary adult attitude about risk-taking, safety is in large measure a matter of paying attention. Once the individual moves beyond seeing safety (beyond the necessity of avoiding the most obvious and serious risks to life and limb) as primarily a matter of avoiding getting called out by management, he or she can develop the habit of casting vigilant eyes on the workplace environment (and their own and co-workers’ conduct).

If your company implements a well-designed program of reporting not only obvious near-misses (e.g., an unsecured object falling from a scaffold, but by good fortune not striking anyone) but hazards or conduct that are nonetheless accidents waiting to happen if continued or repeated, that will be a great benefit. It’s been shown that most serious or calamitous events at jobsites are usually preceded by near-misses or situations that, if noted, could have served as warning. Generally, without encouragement, whether workers will report things that haven’t produced a frightening, although harmless incident, is largely a function of whether the situation was observed by others, such that failing to report it would be conspicuous.

Workers, lacking encouragement, are not avid to report as “near misses” things they may deem to be less than potentially life-threatening hazards, in part because it can be time-consuming, but also because the perception is often that reporting will get the reporter, or one or more other employees, in trouble.

It's important, therefore, to give assurances that prevention, and not punishment, is the objective in urging the reporting of all “near misses” (broadly defined) and not just those that came really close to producing real harm. You might stress, also, that not only are employees answerable to the company, but the company is responsible to employees (as well as to OSHA) and employees are answerable to one another, too.

Workers, studies have found, are more inclined to speak with management about near misses than about incidents actually resulting in injuries. Employers should provide incentives to report near misses (although quotas are usually counter-productive) and allow occurrences to be reported anonymously. Discretion is called for in determining the level of investigation and documentation required. Reporting is something employees don’t want to spend a lot of time doing, and reporting could be deterred by an inquisition not commensurate with the situation. Selected near miss reports should become the subjects of periodic near-miss training sessions.

Examples of what should be seen as near-miss situations are where equipment remains in use despite damage or excessive wear, or there exist hazards such as holes in the floor, crumbling stairs, or nonconforming scaffolds, or whenever employees take risks, such as disconnecting one’s harness to retrieve a dropped tool on a roof, entering an unshored trench “for just a few minutes.” or operating equipment while impaired. Especially given that jobsites often involve vehicles, multiple employers, heavy equipment, temporary structures, a dizzying variety of activities (many of them inherently dangerous), and abrupt changes in the environment as the job progresses, it’s unrealistic to think that detecting and correcting hazards can be effective, without the participation of everyone onsite.

At training sessions, employees should be invited to bring up additional near misses they know of or have seen, and if a hazard in a particular work area or operation has been mentioned, to imagine what else might go wrong in that environment.

If you gain employees’ cooperation, the benefits of individual workers having paid attention can be spread company-wide, reducing significantly the possibility that the recurrence or continuation of hazards seen, but not reported, will result in serious physical harm. Near miss reporting, and the use of information obtained for training, is a proven method of reducing both near misses and actual incidents.

Geoffrey S. Pope is Of Counsel to the construction law firm of Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP, with its main office in White Plains. The articles in this series do not constitute legal advice, and are intended for general guidance only.


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