Causes of Workplace Accidents

In Safety Pioneer W.H. Heinrich’s Industrial Accident Prevention, A Scientific Approach, first published in 1931, Heinrich states 88 percent of all accidents are caused by unsafe acts. Unsafe conditions cause only about 10 percent of workplace accidents, and 2 percent are caused by “acts of God”. Although, there was no research behind these statements whatsoever, Heinrich essentially says accidents rarely just happen. They almost always have causes and can be prevented.

The two primary causes of accidents—unsafe conditions and unsafe acts—need to be understood to keep our employees and ourselves safe in the workplace.

Unsafe conditions are physical conditions of the workplace that render the workplace unsafe. These conditions may include unguarded leading edges, slippery walking/working surfaces, and precariously stacked material

The good news is it is relatively easy for employers to protect their workers from unsafe conditions. All it requires is knowledge of what causes the workplace to be unsafe and the willingness to address these issues. Regular inspections and training will prevent most, if not all, unsafe conditions.

Unsafe acts, put simply, are practices human beings perform that are hazardous. Some of the most common unsafe acts include rushing, taking shortcuts, horseplay, and drinking or drug abuse. Other unsafe acts include disabling safety devices and not using or improperly using personal protective equipment. Safety education and training and enforcement are the most effective ways to keep employees from committing unsafe acts.

Although unsafe conditions and acts are the immediate causes of accidents and incidents, it is important to remember every accident may have started long before the immediate causes. In other words, every accident is the culmination of a series or chain of events that may have begun several months before the job even started, even at the bidding process. If the chain is broken, the incident or accident could be avoided.

For example, consider an incident that recently happened to me at home. I am a diabetic. Because I am a diabetic, I drink a great deal of water. Most nights I sleep with a glass of water on my bedside table. One night, I placed the glass on the corner of the table, close to the edge. My wife said, in her sweet voice, “That glass is too close to the edge of the table.” Me being me—tired and having been married almost 30 years—heard, “Blah, blah, blah.” During the night, I woke up to use the bathroom. As I was climbing back into bed, I knocked the glass over and spilled water all over the bed. My wife woke up angry. I got angry. We needed to change the bed sheets, so by the time I got back to sleep, it was 3:30 a.m., almost time to get up for the day. My alarm goes off at 4:30. I drove to work feeling like a plane on autopilot. Walking up the stairs to the office I missed the top step and smashed my knee. All day long, I was walking around the site wincing in pain. My accident started the night before when I didn’t listen to my wife. If you think about it, if I took better care of myself, I would have not come down with diabetes. And then I wouldn’t need to drink so much water.

Think about any accident or incident you may have had in your life or career. Think about when that incident began. What was the situation? Were there any unsafe conditions? Were you or anyone else involved in any unsafe acts? What was your frame of mind? Think about each accident as a chain. What links in that chain could you have broken to prevent that accident?

About Michael J. Dudek

Michael J. Dudek is an Authorized OSHA Outreach Instructor with extensive experience in general industry and construction.

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