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Top Five Signs a Workplace Accident is Imminent

by Brian Fielkow, J.D., author


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Workplace accidents do not happen in a vacuum – there are always warning signs of an impending accident. The trouble comes when leadership fails to notice the warnings or, worse, chooses to overlook them in favor of meeting deadlines, increased productivity, etc.

“While the red flags that indicate a serious accident is on the horizon can vary – some are glaring, others are more subtle – they are ALWAYS there,” says Brian Fielkow, J.D., author of several books on accident prevention and corporate culture, including "Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield."

According to Fielkow, the following red flags are some of the most common signs that a workplace accident is near:

  1. The near miss: an accident that should have happened but – luckily – didn’t, or wasn’t severe enough to qualify as an OSHA recordable incident. Most often, leadership spends more time and focus on severe accidents while the minor accidents/close calls/near misses don’t warrant much attention. The problem with this mentality is that measurements based on severity, or whether the incident was recordable, don’t make sense. Eventually, a near miss will turn into a full-blown accident if the core of the problem isn’t addressed.
  2. Playing the blame game: When something goes wrong, a lot of times the first instinct is to look for someone to blame. Leadership gets so caught up in pointing fingers – and covering for themselves – instead of investigating the underlying cause of the issue. This almost guarantees the problem will repeat itself, possibly with more dire consequences.
  3. Communication failure: In a positive culture, employees are empowered to report signs of trouble. If there’s never any reporting from your employees, the odds are that they’re seeing problems but just not saying anything. No news is bad news when it comes to preventing workplace accidents.
  4. Cutting corners: When an employee cuts corners – to make a deadline, for instance – they are likely cutting corners in other areas as well. One thing that’s true in nearly every workplace accident? A procedural corner was cut to save time or money.
  5. Happy talk: The pervading idea that “accidents happen” and “that’s why we have insurance” is the kind of “happy talk” that allows management to accept that accidents are inevitable. Sugar-coating the issue with such platitudes as “this kind of stuff happens, we’re a high-risk business” or “I’m sure we’ll do better next time” means not facing the facts or getting at the core of the problem.

No doubt some warning signs are more obvious than others, but failing to recognize any indication of an impending accident can result in a near miss turning into a fatality. Learning to acknowledge the red flags is the first step of instituting a company-wide culture of safety and accident prevention.

With more than 30 years of executive leadership experience in both public and privately held companies, Fielkow advises companies big and small on issues of safety, accident prevention and corporate culture. For more information, visit www.brianfielkow.com.