Recently I attended a wedding in which one of the groomsmen had partial paralysis of his arm. I didn’t ask him what happened, but eventually over drinks and tapas he shared his story with me. It is with his permission that I tell his story here. Several years ago he worked as a floorhand for a rig company in North Dakota. While working the floor on a well, an improperly secured self-restraining lanyard fell from the derrick and hit him squarely in the shoulder. He has a permanent neurologic injury. In his case, a simple misstep contributed to a chain of events that changed his life forever.
I don’t need to tell him (or you) the impact of an accident of this caliber whether they be quality of life, financial, or professional in nature. However, this accident not only impacted him and his family, but the company as well. Up until this point I have delved into strategies to prevent these incidents. This week, I am curious about the process we use to properly manage the scenarios when the accidents we try to prevent occur.
I’ve worked with plenty of companies that have incorrectly recorded incidents. Some haven’t properly documented a recordable incident while others have deemed first-aids as recordable (fortunately, the criteria is relatively black and white and you can find it here to make sure you don’t make these mistakes). Incorrect documentation aside, are there incorrect ways of handling incidents? Certainly.
Candidly, this topic is a bit taboo. It’s in the category of wills and trusts, something you need to plan for but don’t like to think too much about. So what are the right steps to minimize the impact as much as possible?
One mistake that companies make early on after an accident is immediately trying to find fault in the individual for the event. It is a distraction and a huge red flag. It is possible that certain personnel have a large part to play, but your first step shouldn’t be distancing you or your company from the specifics, but to get as much information as possible. Don’t make root cause statements to employees, the press, or officials until you have all the information. Make sure you understand exactly where everything was, who was there, and what was happening before and at the time of the accident. Missing information or data can cause much larger issues, especially if you and your investigation team come to the wrong conclusions.
A second failure is poor case management: not ensuring the injured person gets the proper care or that their return to work and care requirements are clearly defined. I highly recommend subscribing to a tele-medicine service that has video capabilities to make sure these things are taken care of properly. Once they’ve been cleared to leave the hospital it is vital to verify documentation from the physician is clear and understandable. Often, the notes from the physician are written quickly before they move on to their next patient. Make sure someone is there with them (not necessarily in the exam room) to help with discharge and make sure that the next steps are clearly outlined. As a side note, make sure that the workmen’s compensation paperwork is completed as well.
A third issue we find is poor witness testimony. In an accident scenario, other employees typically take a tight-lipped approach. They’ve already seen something horrific, and the last thing they want to do is get a co-worker into trouble. Managing these interactions is paramount. We can’t just slide someone a form or legal pad and say, “Write down what happened.” These interviews should be done with care, concern, and empathy. At the same time we must ask questions and stress the importance of comprehensive details. Often I see witness reports with one or two sentences. “I was there, he got hurt doing this or that, and then they took him to the clinic.” We can’t accept brevity in these instances and should encourage transparency.
This type of work is easier for people who have experience in law enforcement, but that can also be an obstacle. The whole premise is different. In legal action (and insurance), they’re looking for who’s at fault. However, as leaders we should be focused on facts and future prevention. This is our saving grace in incident management: keeping our heads.
After we have the facts and accurate statements, the real work begins. We must make the exhaustive effort of understanding all the underlying and historic elements that led to the incident. This can be a bit tricky. In many instances, accidents happen during non-routine activities. “Abnormal conditions” are well understood in the pipeline world (PHMSA) and are included as a part of every task’s training. Performing common practices in abnormal conditions can result in undesirable outcomes.
Aside from the event itself, we typically look at four elements of a company’s processes to determine root causes. These include: training, procedures, the environment and historical precedence. These are areas that I recommend investigating with your personnel immediately, rather than after an accident (I said I wouldn’t talk about prevention but I can’t help myself). What we’re really looking for is disconnects between “musts” and “dids.” A lot of safety manuals say things like, “supervisors must ensure all hazards are removed prior to performing work.” So, we’ll determine if they actually did. This problem is typically born from “canned” safety programs. If you’ve purchased a copyrighted HSE/QHSE manual, you may be in trouble. Using boilerplate information isn’t all bad, but that is just a starting point. You must customize your programs to your company and to what actually happens in the field.
Performing common practices in abnormal conditions can result in undesirable outcomes.
Another important element is having a documented timeline for all of your reporting criteria. I’ve updated a template that’s available here to get you started and to ensure you have all incident information in one place. I recommend pasting this on top of the folder for quick reference and accountability for your investigation team.
Managing incidents / accidents correctly can be a challenging task. Utilizing the proper engagement strategies and data collection methods is extremely important. Ultimately, as I mentioned earlier, establishing root causes and improvements to your company and operation’s program is the goal. Lastly, take the time to make sure your procedures and processes are specific to your company and your field personnel to prevent an undesired event from happening in the first place.
Jonathon Greiner is President and CEO of Basin Safety Consulting. He serves the oil and gas, green energy, coal, electrical, construction, and primary sector industries. His company provides technical expertise, supervision and program improvements to companies nationwide to simplify and modernize their quality, health and safety programs.