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Near miss, near hit: Don't let the terminology bog you down

July 16, 2010
Whether called near misses, near hits, close calls or something else, the key is to make sure organizations track and investigate them.

A forklift brushes the bottom of a storage rack column. The operator drives off. The racking doesn’t fall and doesn’t appear damaged.

A pedestrian walks in front of a forklift operator. The forklift operator slams on the breaks. There is no collision and no one is injured.

A forklift operator is stacking a high load, the load shifts forward and crashes to the ground. No one is injured, but the product on the pallet is damaged.

A pedestrian slips on some fluid that had leaked from a forklift. The pedestrian falls to the floor, but is not injured.

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Of the above scenarios, which are considered near misses? All four? None? Just the second one? Just the fourth one? It really depends on who you ask.

In talking with safety professionals, there is variation as to what types of events are tracked as near misses (or, as some prefer to call, “near hits.”) Some employers simply capture events that could have easily resulted in injury but didn’t. Some extend this to events that could have easily resulted in property damage but didn’t. Some even consider an event where there was property damage but no injury to be a near miss, while others view this as an actual “accident.”

Defining a near miss

If safety professionals can’t agree on the definition of a near miss/hit, then it’s no surprise that supervisors and employees may have differing views, which can lead to under-reporting. The key is to define it as an organization, and then educate personnel on that definition. That way, everyone will be on the same page as to what needs to be reported, regardless of whether it fits their prior sense of what a near miss is.

OSHA provides the following definition of a near miss in an Accident Investigation Fact Sheet:

…incidents where no property was damaged and no personal injury sustained, but where, given a slight shift in time or position, damage and/or injury easily could have occurred.

Applying this definition to the scenarios at the beginning of the article, all but the third one would be classified as near misses. (The third one would actually be an “accident” by most definitions because there was property damage in the form of the damaged product.) Obviously, all four should be reported and investigated; but in terms of making the distinction, those hopefully illustrate the point.

Settle on a term

Aside from defining near misses, it’s important also to choose a term that employees can relate to. For example, if employees identify more with the term “near hit,” “close call,” or something else, then consider that.

If an organization does decide to use the term “near miss,” it can be a great opportunity to generate questions/discussions in training. A trainee will almost always ask: “Why isn’t it called a near hit instead of a near miss … if it ‘nearly’ missed, then didn’t it actually hit?” The answer to this question is that the usage of “near” in the definition of a “near miss” is a reference to proximity and not a substitute for “almost,” which is usually where the confusion arises. In other words, a near miss is a “miss” that was really near, as in two cars passing within a few inches of each other.

Encourage reporting

In order to maximize reporting, the near-miss policy should be as specific as possible. It should also provide examples to illustrate the types of events that could “easily” lead to damage and/or injury. For example, drawing on the scenarios at the beginning of this article, an employer could make the point by emphasizing that:

  • When the forklift brushed the bottom of the storage rack column, it very easily could have damaged the racking had the angle been just slightly different, the speed been just slightly faster or the racking slightly less strong.
  • When the pedestrian walked in front of the forklift operator, he could have easily been struck by the forklift and injured had the forklift operator been traveling slightly faster or had slightly less time to react.
  • When the pedestrian slipped on the leaked fluid, he could have easily bumped his head, strained a muscle, etc., had the angle been just slightly different, the surface slightly harder or the position of the body slightly different.

In addition to communicating to employees and supervisors which events to report, make sure they know how to report a near miss (i.e., verbally, using a form, etc.) and to whom they should make the report. Also, communicate to employees what to expect after the report, and consequences for failure to report. When it comes to consequences for failure to report near misses, treat this the same as a failure to report accidents.

The other key to near-miss reporting is that the employer must investigate the issue, treating it much like an actual accident to uncover root causes … and prevent an actual accident down the road.

OSHA regulations

In addition to making good business sense in terms of preventing future accidents, there are OSHA requirements to investigate or take action after certain near misses:

  • OSHA’s Permit-Required Confined Spaces Standard, 29 CFR 1910.146, requires employers to review the entry program when there is a near miss during entry.
  • OSHA’s Powered Industrial Truck Standard, at 29 CFR 1910.178, requires that refresher training in relevant topics be given to operators involved in a near miss.
  • OSHA’s Construction Fall Protection Standard, at 29 CFR 1926.502, requires that employers investigate falls and near misses.
  • OSHA’s non-mandatory Appendix A to the Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals Standard, 29 CFR 1910.119, notes that OSHA expects employers to become aware of and to investigate near misses that could have serious consequences.

Whatever you call them…

Whether called near misses, near hits, close calls or something else, the key is to make sure the organization is tracking and investigating them and that employees are reporting them. Near misses can provide tremendous opportunities for organizations to implement or modify controls to prevent future accidents.

Contributed by J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., the nation's leader in risk and regulatory management solutions since 1953.  For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com

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