Learning from near-misses can make sites safer

Learning lessons from onsite accidents is vital. But examining the cause of disasters that are narrowly avoided can be just as useful. Keith Cooper finds out how firms are collecting information from close calls to improve health and safety

Something seemed wrong to the slinger signaller when the load was attached to the tower crane’s rope. He grounded the load, but no one, not even John Sisk & Son’s safety team, could spot a problem. Yet the concern was taken seriously. A decision was made to have the steel rope magnetically tested, in the same way that the cables of ski lifts are assessed for safety. This test revealed that an internal strand of wire had snapped, creating a point of weakness in the rope and a potential precursor to a catastrophic failure. Now every new rope is similarly tested.

“This all came about because someone put their hand up and said something wasn’t quite right,” says Wayne Metcalfe, director of health, safety, sustainability and quality at Sisk.

Kate Field, British Standards Institute

Incidents like these go by many names in the industry: near-miss, near hit, potential accident, close call. Cast in a more positive light, they are learning events. Whatever they are called, they offer information and opportunities to reduce the number of actual accidents. For decades, they have been considered the bedrock of safety practice in construction and other industries where people can be injured or killed at work.

“Close calls are the early warning signs that something is not working,” says British Standards Institute (BSI) global head of health, safety and well-being Kate Field. “As soon as you take action on these signs you can prevent further harm.”

How are construction firms collecting information and using close calls to improve safety? To find out, we spoke to several firms about their approach.

Improving reporting

Given their fundamental role in safety practice, it is unsurprising that many firms employ different ways to encourage workers to report near-misses and to record how the incident was managed.

It is vital that the reporting process is simple, easy and quick. Some firms use QR barcodes dotted around sites to direct smartphone users to the right applications. 

“We spend a lot of time engaging with people to explain they’re not grassing someone up. You’re potentially protecting one of your colleagues”

John Crossan, Buckingham Group Contracting

Others use web portals or physical kiosks. While digital technology is replacing more traditional reporting means, such as paper cards, some firms say such analogue methods still have a place.

“There are people in their 50s and 60s on our sites who aren’t comfortable with apps,” says Costain safety, health and environment director Gavin Bye.

Some firms incentivise reporting with gift vouchers or by adding points to a site team’s key performance indicators. Denbighshire-based principal contractor Wynne Construction, for example, scores site teams up for every near-miss they report and down for every accident.

Colin Proffit-Jones, the firm’s health, safety, environmental and quality manager, says Wynne briefs its clients about near-misses and what has been done about them to try to spread good practice. “They can then go to other projects that we are not working on with ways to overcome problems the near-misses identify,” he says.

Colin Proffit-Jones, Wynne Construction

Buckingham Group Contracting rewarded a worker with a gift voucher after he stopped a driver from offloading plant in a way that breached safety rules. The driver had refused to let Buckingham’s worker erect barriers around the offloading ramp as part of a new safety procedure.

“He was recognised for having the confidence to tackle that situation,” says John Crossan, the group’s health and safety manager for civils, demolition and HS2. The worker’s decision to intervene was also praised by the contractor’s client.

Such incentives are part of a wider push to tackle reluctance among site workers to report near-misses. “Some people don’t see intervening or reporting close calls as their job,” says Crossan. “We spend a lot of time engaging with people to explain they’re not grassing someone up. You’re potentially protecting one of your colleagues.”

Effective communication

Construction firms are also tackling what they consider to be another disincentive to reporting close calls – the term itself.

“I don’t like the language,” says BCM Construction operations director Daniel O’Dowd. “It causes alarm bells in people’s minds. It spooks them and can be a deterrent when promoting the use of the system. That language needs to change and we’re changing it now.”

BCM Construction’s reporting system – See It, Sort It, Report It – is used throughout the rail infrastructure sector, which is its main source of business.

“There’s nothing worse for operatives on site than something coming through the system and there’s a wall of silence”

Daniel O’Dowd, BCM Construction 

“It’s more of a lessons learned, information sharing and gathering tool,” says O’Dowd. “This gives us the data that tells us where we need to improve. It tracks safety trends or good practices, which we can share throughout our business supply chain and with clients.”

One of the simplest and best means of encouraging reporting came out of the 2012 Olympics – the use of ‘You Said, We Did’ boards. These tell workers what actions were taken off the back of their reports.

“There’s nothing worse for operatives on site than something coming through the system and there’s a wall of silence,” says O’Dowd. “You need to bring the frontline operatives on this journey. They’re key to safety and making sure everyone goes home safe every day.”

Costain’s Bye says feedback is particularly important in construction because projects bring a lot of people together in new teams. “It’s not a steady-state manufacturing environment where you can influence the same thing year on year on year,” he adds. “So, getting that conversation going between the workforce and the project team, demonstrating that we are listening and acting on that conversation, is absolutely crucial.”

Mike Webb, Galliford Try

Galliford Try health, safety and environment director Mike Webb says feedback helps to build the culture it wants on its sites.

“You have to follow up on all close calls, however spurious they seem,” he says. “When you work at it and people see actions to improve things, you get the culture going, and you’re on the path towards people intervening with each other.”

Creating a culture where workers are willing to challenge near-misses on the spot is key to Galliford Try’s overall safety programme, called Challenging Beliefs, Affecting Behaviours. “The utopia is where the bricklayer intervenes by speaking to the carpenter who inadvertently can’t see that a near-miss is about to occur,” says Webb.

High potential near-misses

So, how do firms use all the information on near-misses that they make such an effort to collect? Much is acted on immediately, like under the See It, Sort It, Report it model. In such cases, near-miss reports help managers to identify trends or push the report higher up the management chain for further action.

For some near-misses, like Sisk’s intervention with the tower crane cable, new safety measures become systems or procedures introduced across the firm. Others trigger further investigation and many firms are beginning to treat near-misses as seriously as actual incidents, pushing them higher up the safety hierarchy.

“We treat these HiPOs in exactly the same way as we would an actual major incident”

Mike Webb, Galliford Try

At the top of this chain of response are incidents that must be officially reported: actual accidents that injure people, as well as dangerous or potentially catastrophic incidents, such as crane collapses, even if they do no harm to anyone.

Between this layer of reportable incidents and near-misses sit high potential near-misses or HiPOs – a near-miss that could have resulted in severe injury or death, but which, by sheer luck, did not.

Poster from Galliford Try’s overall safety programme: Challenging Beliefs, Affecting Behaviours

Sisk’s Metcalfe says the contractor treats near-misses on a par with actual accidents. “A very minor cut is an actual incident, but a falling object, which could have led to multiple fatalities, is classified as a near-miss. It warrants the same, if not more attention, than the cut finger.”

Webb says Galliford Try has had a “massive focus” on HiPOs in recent years. “We treat these HiPOs in exactly the same way as we would an actual major incident,” he adds.

Leading indicators

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) – along with some firms we spoke to – is concerned that a sole focus on near-miss data could distract from more sophisticated safety practices.

“The construction industry is still very focused on incidents, including near-misses,” says HSE inspector Gordon Crick. “But focusing on incidents is like looking in your rear-view mirror all the time when you’re driving your car. You need instead to see what’s ahead.”

“Focusing on incidents is like looking in your rear-view mirror when you’re driving your car. You need instead to see what’s ahead”

Gordon Crick, HSE

The HSE is now endorsing an approach from process industries, such as oil and gas, where near-misses help to pinpoint the layers of safety protection needed to stop accidents occurring. Each layer of protection adds to the one before.

One layer might be training; another might be management skills. These layers, known as risk-control systems, are then checked with so-called ‘leading indicators’ – the name of a HSE project, funded by Lloyd’s Register, to help construction adopt the approach.

“Leading indicators moves the focus upstream to management arrangements, and how health and safety is done,” says HSE science division research lead Steven Naylor. “It looks at risk-control systems, whether they are in place and how effective they are. Are they doing what they are designed to do?”

In-depth commitment

For this approach to work, HSE’s Crick says construction firms must commit to in-depth investigations, however uncomfortable they might be.

“It’s all too easy to carry out a superficial investigation,” he says. “Sometimes legal processes in big companies shut things down. Pressures conspire against investigations fully exploring root causes and leaving no stone unturned. Necessary changes may not be made to management systems as a result. The learning that should happen from incidents and accidents, which feed through to leading indicators, does not happen.”

Costain, one of the firms using leading indicators, has seen the rate of accidents and environmental and ill-health incidents halve since introducing them, says Bye.

“Six or seven years ago, people would spend management meetings talking about a particular accident,” he adds. “What you want to be talking about now is what are the underlying causes that need to be fixed and how we can fix those underlying causes?” Its accident investigators are now highly trained by experts at Cranfield University.

So where next for near-miss reporting? Sisk’s Metcalfe points to an interesting new path.

“What about taking this strong culture of care about physical things and applying it to the psychological safety agenda?” he suggests. “How about speaking up when a colleague seems distant or is not working as well as they usually do? It would be an interesting place to take
near-miss reporting.”

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