Addressing the root causes of accidents

By: Ed Zalewski

Publication: Supervisor Safety Alert

Date Posted: 09/18/2020

Employers investigate accidents to determine what went wrong and to prevent future incidents. Accidents tend to have both immediate causes and root causes.

The immediate causes might be obvious, like ice on a sidewalk that caused a slip.

To identify root causes, look for process breakdowns and even motivations. Those will be harder to correct, but motivations for unsafe behavior must be addressed.

Immediate vs. root causes of workplace accidents

Suppose a forklift driver carried an unbalanced load that slid off the tines while going around a corner. The immediate causes might include failure to secure the load and driving too fast. Finding the root causes, however, involves asking questions like:

  • Was the driver trained to secure loads and operate at safe speeds?
  • Why didn’t the driver secure the load?
  • Why was the driver going too fast?
  • Was the driver ever reprimanded for taking too long and perhaps encouraged to speed up?

Finding the root causes will help identify corrective actions. For example, if the driver could not recognize an unstable load, training might be needed. However, if the driver knew the load was unstable but carried it anyway, something else is going on.

A root cause might be a staffing shortage that encourages workers to take safety shortcuts in order to meet production demands.

Similarly, perhaps the driver was previously reprimanded for going too slow, and got the impression that production speed takes priority over safety.

Communication confusion

Communicating expectations can produce unintended consequences if workers hear something beyond the supervisor’s actual words. Supervisors need to ensure that safety remains an equal priority with productivity.

If the company’s focus is on production speed, with little focus on safety, then communicating production expectations could motivate shortcuts in safety. If that root cause is not addressed, workers will continue to take shortcuts, and will continue to cause accidents.

About the author
Ed Zalewski - EH&S Editor

Ed specializes in safety issues such as injury recordkeeping, walking-working surfaces, and forklifts. He is responsible for researching regulatory activity and issues facing EHS professionals in order to develop and update content for J. J. Keller’s EHS products.

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