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How to Manage Safety Incidents Effectively: Steps and Best Practices

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.6 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported in 2021. This massive number is despite the fact that safety is a high priority in a majority of companies.

A safety incident occurring despite best efforts to prevent them, however, can be viewed as a learning experience. It might show a gap in your risk management program or a hazard that you missed.

Good incident management allows you to improve your safety program and promotes a robust safety culture that motivates the entire workforce to contribute to your company’s safety management.

But what is a safety incident anyway? What could cause one? And how can you handle an incident effectively? Read on to find answers to these questions and more.

What Is a Safety Incident?

A safety incident is an unplanned or undesired event in the workplace that adversely affects work operations. It includes occurrences that cause or could have caused work injuries, illnesses, damage to health, property damage, or even fatalities.

When such an incident occurs in your workplace, be it a serious incident that results in severe injury or property damage, a minor incident, or even a near miss, it must always be investigated thoroughly. This is mainly because such an investigation may reveal unforeseen gaps in your safety management that may cause more such safety incidents if left uncorrected.

How Does an Incident Differ from an Accident?

Workplace safety professionals often use the terms “accident” and “incident” interchangeably in workplace settings. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has different definitions for them.

An accident is commonly considered a type of incident that has more serious consequences such as a significant injury or even a fatality, while an incident covers this as well as near misses and minor injuries.

But OSHA prefers the term "incident" regardless of the severity for two main reasons:

  1. The term “accident” can often imply that the event was related to fate and was “nobody’s fault.” But usually, when the incident is investigated and the root cause is found, it turns out to be a consequence of some gap in the company’s safety program. If this gap had been identified and fixed, the incident may never have occurred, making it unrelated to fate or chance.
  2. A workplace incident causing injuries is an emotionally charged situation and no one wants the blame for its occurrence. But if the root issue is not fixed, it might occur again. Using a neutral term like “incident” is helpful to promote a productive discussion and objective incident investigation that would protect you from similar incidents in the future.

But don’t be confused if the two terms are used in the same context! Further description of the incident usually makes the severity and consequences clear, and an effective incident management program would help you manage any type of incident in a streamlined way.

Important Types of Safety Incidents to Look Out For

An incident or accident could happen apparently out of nowhere, occurring because of a completely unusual hazard. But it could also be due to causes that are as simple as they are common in the business world. Here are the three main types of incidents that could happen in your organization no matter what industry you’re in.

Slips, Trips, and Falls

Safety incident: employee tripping over a cable wire

While this may be an incident most likely to occur in physically demanding industries such as construction, it could occur even in the most benign IT office. Anyone could trip over a stray wire or slip on wet floors.

It’s vital to account for these simple hazards by keeping your workplace as organized as possible and giving your employees the equipment to deal with the hazards (e.g. PPE such as hard hats for construction workers, signs to indicate wet floors, etc.).

Struck by Objects

This type of safety incident is most probable in industries where objects are likely to fall or fly about. In workplaces using machinery, for example, a piece of material could separate from a tool and strike a worker if not properly secured. Another example could be if a heavy object falls down just as someone is walking by. Such incidents can be prevented through robust safety procedures (e.g., defining exactly how to secure material to a tool so that it doesn’t fly off).

Electrical Incidents

This could occur if an employee gets in contact with an exposed power line. But that’s not the only cause of electrocution. If two terminals are shorted together, it could cause an arc flash, burning skin and clothing if protective (fire-resistant) clothing is not used. The best way to prevent this is to educate and train employees on electrical and fire safety, and to have robust electrical safety procedures depending on the types of machines and equipment being used in your workplace.

These are by no means the only types of incidents that occur in the workplace, but they can happen in any work environment and employees need appropriate safety training to watch out for and deal with the possibility of such incidents occurring. Usually, clear safety procedures help prevent or mitigate these types of issues, but a good safety culture in which every employee is accountable for their actions and alert to their surroundings also helps.

4 Common Causes of Incidents

Safety incident: construction workers working on a building

As mentioned before, incidents, when investigated, typically turn out to be quite avoidable. To be clear, some of them (such as natural disasters or a fall despite all precautions taken) are unavoidable, but most are caused by issues that can be fixed by the appropriate corrective actions.

Here are the most common causes of an incident.

1. Gaps in Your Risk Management Process

These could include issues such as a certain hazard or risk that went unnoticed, safety procedures that are full of jargon and unclear to the workers that follow them, a legacy safety program that hasn’t been updated recently, or maybe the lack of safety training for employees.

Every procedure and policy related to safety must be reviewed and updated regularly, and all your safety regulations must be clearly communicated to all your employees. This may prevent a lot of incidents from occurring.

2. Working Alone

This issue is more common and also more dangerous than you would think, especially in physically demanding industries such as construction and manufacturing.

When people work alone in such worksites, no one is there to correct them if they're not following a particular safety procedure. Also, help may be a long way off if an incident or injury does occur, thus increasing the severity of the issue.

So, the possibility of lone working needs to be considered while crafting safety measures for various operations.

3. Safety Training

You might believe that you have appropriate safety training in place for your employees. But it’s important to review this and ensure that you’re giving them all the resources possible to stay safe at work. Ask yourself (and your employees) questions like:

  • Does our training cover everything related to our business operations?
  • Does our training encourage every employee to be alert to risks and accountable for their own actions?
  • Is our safety training updated frequently enough?
  • Is our training engaging and delivered regularly enough that safety is on top of mind for the employees?
  • After the training, do employees know exactly what to do, and what hazards to watch out for?

If any of this is not the case, your training may well be ineffective, which can make safety incidents more likely to occur.

4. Competing Priorities

While safety is clearly a priority, companies are focused on several competing issues such as meeting targets, completing projects on time and within budget, and more. Remember that safety is not competing with any of the other priorities. It should underscore every project and operation and should be considered even while managing day-to-day business challenges.

If you need to choose between a business operation and a safety issue (e.g., if an incident has taken place), safety would undoubtedly take precedence. For instance, if there’s a potential safety incident, work in that area should be immediately put on hold until precautions are taken and the incident is investigated.

Make it clear to all your employees that nothing is more important than safety.

5 Steps to Effectively Handle a Safety Incident

Engineers managing a construction site

Preventing an incident and mitigating risks is all well and good, but what if an incident still occurs? You need to know how to manage it effectively, and more importantly, you need to have a plan in place so that you can take immediate action to prevent future incidents. Here are some tips to handle a safety incident effectively.

1. Be Well Prepared

Have clear, definite procedures in place defining how to react when an incident happens. Keep checklists and incident reporting templates ready so that an investigation can begin as soon as possible and no vital information is missed. Define and communicate roles, tasks, and responsibilities (i.e., an emergency response plan) so that your company is not panicked when the incident takes place. Finally, your employees should be trained in first aid, and your first aid kits should be accessible and well-stocked so that affected workers can be taken care of immediately.

2. Prioritize Taking Care of Affected Employees

While investigating the incident and preventing similar occurrences in the future is important, what’s even more important is to manage the consequences of the current incident. First aid should be administered when possible. But if the situation is life-threatening, call 911 immediately. If the injury is more minor but still needs hospitalization, get the injured person to a hospital as quickly as possible.

3. Start Investigating

Once the immediate injuries are taken care of, the incident should be investigated and documented as quickly as possible while it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind. Take photos and videos, and collect as much evidence as possible to help with finding the root cause of the incident. Record all this clearly in a pre-prepared template or form to make later analysis and reporting easier.

4. Communicate!

The backbone of workplace safety is clear communication between everyone involved. The incident should be reported to OSHA within the stipulated timeframe. Also, any workers and supervisors who could be affected by the incident should be notified so that they can take action.

After these immediate notifications, management needs to be informed as well, and the incident report should ideally be shared with everyone in the company. Remember that safety incidents are not confidential, as the same factors that led to one incident may cause problems in other parts of your organization as well (e.g., other departments or a different worksite conducting similar operations).

5. Incorporate Investigation Results Into the Safety Plan

Finally, it’s important to actually take action based on the findings. This includes immediate corrective actions to fix the gaps found through the investigation and follow-ups to ensure that these actions are taken.

It also involves updating your safety management documents to include the issues and solutions found. Such an update, combined with additional training if necessary, would help ensure that similar incidents don’t occur again.

Streamline Your Incident Management With Automation

Team member incident info

Incident management is not always easy and if you’re just beginning to make and implement a proper plan, it can seem overwhelming. But there are automated solutions to make your work easier.

Using a platform such as Pulpstream’s Incident Management software can make incident investigation, analysis, and reporting smooth and easy. It not only allows you to store and update incident-related forms and documents in real-time but also has sophisticated analysis capabilities to make finding the root cause and other patterns easier. And what’s more, you can even automate communications and reporting with this tool.

Check out if the solution is a good fit for your incident management needs today. Book a free demo with Pulpstream now!