Hazard Recognition: What’s the Problem?

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved”

~Charles Kettering

John James is passionate about properly understanding problems. But not just any old problems: his focus is on medical problems. He collects research, writes articles, makes speeches, and publishes The Patient Safety Newsletter. If you happen to care about your health, it’s well worth subscribing. It won’t cost you a penny, and might just save your life.

As to where all that passion and energy comes from – his is not a paying gig – there’s a simple, but tragic explanation: John lost a son in his early twenties because his medical condition was not properly diagnosed when he was admitted to the Emergency Room. John is of the opinion that things like that happen a lot more often than the general public appreciates – and that the medical community would like to admit. He’s on a mission to change that.

Of course, his focus is on the practice of medicine; ours is on the practice of safety leadership. They do align in the common goal of keeping people out of the Emergency Room. Around here, we call that going home, alive and well at the end of the day.

On the matter of medical misdiagnosis, leaders like you often share something in common with the MDs; something that’s not a good thing. As a management consultant, I see it a lot: the misdiagnosis of a problem with potentially serious consequences.

That problem: hazard recognition.

Hazard Recognition Training?


A phone call or email comes our way: “We’re having a problem. Our people are literally tripping and falling over hazards. Can you teach them how to recognize what can hurt them?”

As a consultant, I’ve been getting that from leaders the world over, for nearly two decades. The problem: inability to recognize hazards. The obvious solution: training on hazard recognition.

It’s not hard to figure out what produces that diagnosis. There’s a list of injuries populated with familiar hazards: stairways, scaffolds, ladders, two by fours, pallets, power tools, hand tools, pickup truck bumpers, parking lot bumpers, head knockers, knuckle busters. The obvious conclusion is that people don’t know how to recognize what can hurt them.

As supporting evidence, there’s likely a stack of root cause investigations that corroborate the finding: “Root cause: hazard not identified.”

A time or two, I’ve been tempted to respond: “So your people don’t see what can hurt them and you want training? Ok, let’s make a list of every single thing in your operation that has the potential to hurt them. Then, we’ll show them pictures.”

That would probably come across as an insult: “You cannot be serious. This is serious business!” Click.

I wouldn’t blame them for thinking that, so never say that. But I am serious. After fifty years of industrial experience, they might well be amazed at all the things I have seen that have produced harm to people working for a living. Like Professor Burke, I know a lot because I’ve seen a lot.

Maybe I should, because it makes a point. And maybe they wouldn’t take it the wrong way: “You know, you make a good point. Just about anything can be a hazard. Maybe I need to rethink what I’m asking for.”

Amen to that.

So what is it that a leader who’s looking at a list of hazards like that actually asking for?

We Need Training


You may be thinking this newsletter is intended to throw cold water on the idea of training. It’s not. What it is aimed at is producing a proper diagnosis of the problem commonly called “hazard recognition.”

If you make a list of the hazards that have recently harmed people in your operation, the odds are high that most of the hazards are ordinary, familiar, and known to just about everyone in the outfit. Every once in a while, one of those deadly hazards specific to your business will show up as the source of the harm. The “bolt out of the blue” can also make an appearance. Those are the exceptions; for the majority, the source of harm is well-known, and the route of injury familiar.

So, what are those in harm’s way missing?

Good diagnostic practice is to rule in and rule out the possible explanations for the condition. (Isn’t that what a good physician should do when diagnosing the patient?).

Start with the obvious: Are the hazards obvious – to the eye, ear, nose? If they are undetectable, teaching discovery methods and processes may well be what’s needed.

Not the case with that list of hazards, above.

Is there an absence of knowledge as to the potential harm the hazard can cause?

To answer that question – for your operation – try performing this thought experiment. At the moment immediately preceding the event, you point at the source of harm, and ask the person about to be struck by the hazard, “Do you think that has the potential to harm you?”

If they answer, “No, I honestly never knew that could hurt me” they’re a good candidate for hazard recognition training. Teach how that can hurt them.

But, if they say, “Sure, I know that. Everyone knows that” you have prima facie evidence that this is not a problem with insufficient knowledge as to what represents a hazard to them. Putting them in a training course on hazard recognition to teach them something that they already know is a complete waste of their valuable time – and your good money.

Why throw good money after bad?

Eliminating the Hazard


The hazard is in plain sight. The person knows that it can hurt them. Neither of which had any influence over their choice of behavior. So they got hurt. What’s the problem?

If you say, “It’s the hazard” you could go down the route of removing the hazard. That would solve the problem, once and for all.

It’s great idea! By all means, remove, replace, re-engineer to eliminate the hazard. We like to call that control, and it’s an absolute guarantee of a solution.

But there is one catch: there will always be things in the workplace that can hurt people. Which is what a hazard is: some “thing” that can hurt someone.

Remove, replace, re-engineer, there is something else to take its place. It’s just a different thing.  Replace bikes with three wheelers; replace three wheelers with ATV’s; replace ATV’s with pickup trucks.

Seen that a time or two, and still see people getting hurt in and around pickups. I suppose you could just have them walk …on sidewalks, gravel, through water, ice, mud, snow. And under pipe racks and equipment.

A Proper Diagnosis


Examining the list of the kinds of hazards that are most likely to send people home hurt or hurting at the end of the day is the first step on the road to solving this problem.  The second step is even more important: properly diagnosing what that problem is. If the problem really is lack of knowledge, or the inability to see what’s there that can produce harm, have at teaching “hazard recognition.”

You could even throw in some training on the principles of camouflage. A manager once seriously proposed doing exactly that! Seriously? As if hazards like stairs and pallets and parking lot bumpers were wearing face paint so they have the element of surprise working to their advantage?

If you’re serious about solving this problem, you’ve got to think a lot better than that. Which I’m sure you are perfectly capable of doing.

Solving this problem is pretty simple, once you’ve defined the problem in the right way. In this case, it really isn’t hard to do either.

The problem:

  • Thinking, “I know what can get me hurt” is not what keeps people safe.
  • Doing something about the things that can hurt them is what keeps them safe.
  • Getting people to do something starts with getting them to think, “I don’t want something like that to happen to me – or anyone else.”

That diagnosis will take you to a solution that is likely to produce the result you’re looking for.

If you need help with the solution, call me in the morning.

Paul Balmert

August 2018

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