On a summer morning in 2006, in Brooklyn, N.Y., OSHA compliance officer Bob Stewart requested that six construction employees be removed from a deep excavation because of a hazardous 10-ton concrete abutment hanging above it. Fifteen minutes later, the overhang collapsed and fell, landing in the exact spot in which the employees had been working. That is an unusually dramatic example of a workplace close call, made rarer still in that an OSHA inspector happened to be on hand just moments before. But close calls, or “near misses,” are a part of everyday life.
Most employers take care to remind workers of the dangers that can lead to accidents and injuries and provide training on how to avoid accidents. And when an accident does occur, there’s an immediate response, followed by an investigation, so that similar accidents can be prevented in the future.
Failure to take these incidents seriously is begging for trouble, because it’s almost inevitable that, sooner or later, a tripping worker will fall, another will be struck by that door, the damaged rung of a ladder will cause a serious fall, and improper handling of strapping will result in dire injury.
Use these close calls an opportunity for instructive and preventive action. Begin by making it clear that workers are expected to report near misses — not to place blame, but to figure out how to prevent an accident next time.
Because the training opportunity will likely be greatest while the close call is still on everyone’s mind, right after the incident, deliver a toolbox or tailgate talk on what did happen, what could have happened, and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Conduct a training session on close calls in general. The trainer or safety committee member should start by mentioning examples that have occurred in your operation and ask workers to add examples from their own recollection. The session should then focus on causes and, finally, on corrective action. By recognizing the “almost-accident” as a warning and encouraging safety awareness on everyone’s part, you’ll not only reduce the number of near misses but — far more important — also the number of real accidents.