The 2-part mystery of plant accidents

Aug. 1, 2013
Understanding the conditions that lead to unsafe conduct.

In case you didn’t notice, safety is a huge topic throughout industry these days. In a way that’s surprising because American plants have been enjoying a steady decline in reportable injuries for over a decade now. On the other hand, the focus on safety is probably a lot of the cause for the improvement in our national performance.

While writing stories on plant safety and what goes into an industrial mishap, I have found myself wondering what mechanisms are in play that could be stopped to prevent accidents. Why do they happen when and where they do, and how could we put a stick in their spokes when they’re about to strike?

One very useful comment on this topic came from Alex Masotti, director, environmental, health & safety, discrete automation & motion division, North America, at Baldor ( They’re the electric motor people, an ABB company. Alex pointed out that, if we’re really interested in keeping people safe, we need to include transportation accidents in any risk assessment. They hurt and kill far more employees than all plant accidents combined. This, in turn, made me think that perhaps some of the same mechanisms that cause roadway accidents may be operating in the plant and causing injuries there as well.

I believe we would all agree that traffic accidents usually happen when someone who isn’t driving very well at the moment comes up against a situation that calls for driving performance above and beyond the normal call of duty. The problem may be a potentially dangerous piece of road design, poor vehicle performance, stupid pedestrian tricks, weather, or a dozen other things. Most days most drivers are up to the challenge. Then one day someone isn’t.

Where does that line of thought take us in the factory? For one thing, it should make us swear off finger pointing once and for all. The old-school argument between those who believe that working conditions cause accidents and the others who wish people would just do their jobs more carefully must stop. If most accidents really have two causes, we ought to make it our business to eradicate them both.

J. Stanton McGroarty, CMfgE, CMRP, is senior technical editor of Plant Services. He was formerly consulting manager for Strategic Asset Management International (SAMI), where he focused on project management and training for manufacturing, maintenance and reliability engineering. He has more than 30 years of manufacturing and maintenance experience in the automotive, defense, consumer products and process manufacturing industries. He holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in management from Central Michigan University. He can be reached at [email protected] or check out his .

It’s like a successful marriage. If each partner sets his or her sights on doing 75% of what needs to be done around the house, then as a team they will accomplish just about 100% of what’s essential. Similarly, if management and operations people try to accident-proof the entire plant, they will reduce the number of traps that are lying in wait for workers. And if team members all do their best to avoid the behaviors that spring the remaining traps, accidents should drop dramatically. We will be doubly effective if both groups set aside some time each day to share discoveries and display the energy that must go into workplace safety.

The Baldor team developed a list of four conditions that lead to unsafe conduct; they are rushing, complacency, fatigue and frustration. Readers may be forgiven for slapping their foreheads at this point. Do those four sound like life in your plant? They sure ring a bell for me.

If we combine our experience and energy, we can all contribute to a list of the things that create hazards in our particular workplaces. Safety walk downs, 5S exercises, and design reviews can all help to focus us and institutionalize the process of taking the traps out of the workplace.

So let’s work on the combination – design the four hazardous mindsets out of our own workdays and those of the people around us. Simultaneously stress in every way possible the recognition and elimination of workplace conditions that demand perfection from the people working around them. If each of us works on his or her corner of the business as if it were the whole problem, then the whole problem will come under our joint control. Maybe start with ten minutes of thought in the morning, when you’re fresh, and add a couple of minutes of discussion at the start of each meeting.

Murphy had it right all along – If something can go wrong, it will, and at the worst possible time. All we need to do is make sure it can’t go wrong, and then be certain it’s never the worst possible time.

Read Stanton McGroarty's monthly column, Strategic Maintenance.

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