What Can We Learn From a Serious Workplace Accident?

serious workplace accident

Organisations are left reeling when they are involved in a serious workplace accident. There are likely fatalities and injuries, both physical and psychological, possible environmental damage, loss of public confidence, and unhappy shareholders and investors. Grieving family members and a shocked community, both locally and globally. When a serious accident occurs, it is essential that the organisation and others learn from the mistakes made to ensure that there is not a repeat. We review a paper that was published online in the international journal Safety Science that explores how organisations learn after serious workplace accidents. This paper is not available as open access, so we are providing the key findings in this post. The study interviewed 30 people from rail and marine sectors to determine the changes in the aftermath of a serious accident. The research looked at the conditions for learning from accidents. The interviews drew on two major Norwegian accidents: The high-speed craft MS Sleipner-accident (1999) and the railway accident at Åsta (2000). Learning from accidents is a valuable practice to manage risk in organisations.

How do organisations learn after a serious accident?

The study posed the question after serious workplace accidents: How do organisations learn after the tragedy has become a reality? The study explored how individuals look back on and retrace learning from accidents. The authors focused on perceptions of how learning is produced. The authors argue that after an accident, learning takes place within a complex environment of interactions between actors and parallel processes. There are numerous learning processes operating in this scenario.

The severe wake-up call triggered by the accident was emphasised by the interviewees. They recognised that safety applied across the entire organisation. They also pointed to a need for strong leadership, arguing that safety was a line management responsibility. The organisations in the study had extended use of external consultants that led to fragmentation and weak ownership.

More structured training (including simulator training) and an increased focus on emergency preparedness and communication were called for. These were key to increased learning because accidents are quickly forgotten.

“(1) Accident learning processes escape a solid demarcation point, and

(2) learning takes place in the untidy interlock of various actor-context constellations.”

serious workplace accidentImplications for today’s organisations

The study showed that there are four common issues that potentially affect the efforts to learn from accidents:

1. Everybody wants to learn from workplace accidents, but there are many interests.
2. Everybody wants openness, but openness can lead to someone interested in only ‘protecting’ themselves.
3. Authorities are initiators, but authorities can fragment and pulverise.
4. Media contributes to focus, but the media can also destroy focus.

The key findings from this study provide an interesting insight into how organisations move forward after a serious workplace accident. The authors argue that the study illustrates the silent ongoing ‘problem solving’ that perpetually goes on in organisations. They highlight learning from ‘silent drift and deviation’ (of how a problem is solved there and then), that continuously takes place. They note that in an organisation, there are undercurrents of influence. That can reproduce similar solutions, again and again, both positive and negative.

See our post on the importance of your Supervisors in the management of workplace injuries.

It is here that we catch a glimpse of a complex response pattern that gradually, over time, and by the forces of repetition becomes programmed as second nature. This is how we can positively learn from a serious workplace accident to prevent repetition. This study highlights the complexity of understanding how learning takes place in the organisational context.  With its constant opposing forces, there is tension between what we want to do and what we can do. What we want to achieve are recurrent practices to embed learning. What we are often up against is the push and pull of a range of actors and interests.

See our posts on how to keep your office injury-free and how smart devices can alert about impending workplace injuries.

serious workplace accident

How can training prevent workplace accidents?

Research across a number of disciplines shows that engagement and interactivity are key to embedded knowledge. Engaging training influences work health and safety behaviour. The Tap Into Safety solution offers interactive and engaging workplace health and safety training that is delivered via smart devices and online.

As a business, we are embracing the enhancements in technology. Our training isn’t numerous PowerPoint slides shown to a group of employees, followed by a paper questionnaire at the end. We use real workplace photographic, panoramic examples that workers relate to because it shows their work sites. We are using animation and gaming technology to enhance training to engage employees and deliver training in 15 minutes or less.

With our flexible per-use ‘credits’ model pricing, you simply pay for what you use. You can purchase any number of credits at any time, that you can use within 12 months before they expire. There are no subscription fees or lock-in contracts.

If you’d like to know more, please contact us or click through to try a free online demo.

To conclude

When a serious accident occurs, it is essential that the organisation and others learn from the mistakes made to ensure as far as possible that there is not a repeat. The key to increased learning after serious accidents includes more structured training and an increased focus on emergency preparedness and communication. The authors argue that this study highlights ‘problem solving’ that is continuously affected by undercurrents of influence. There is tension between what we want to do and what we can do.

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