Near Misses – your ‘get out of jail free’ cards

I was meeting with the CEO of a mid-sized company, talking about managing safety and the importance of culture. He made an interesting comment. He said: “What about managing near misses? Near misses are my ‘get out of jail free’ card.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realised he was absolutely right. How often have you heard a discussion about a near miss where someone says “that was lucky?” And the obvious response is that yes, it was lucky, but luck isn’t a commonly accepted strategy for managing safety!

So, how should you deal with near misses, and what about complaints and feedback? These all have a role to play as early warning indicators that things might be going off the rails. They can indicate issues with processes or culture, and should be treated with the same rigour as when an actual incident occurs.

But in dealing with this, there is a pitfall we need to be aware of. The issue is that we all filter what we see. We see things within the context of what’s normal for us. For example, if you live in the city, you’ll sleep through the night perfectly well, even though the garbage truck arrives at 4am, the neighbour’s dog barks as usual, or the street light flickers. But you can go to the country, and a cow mooing, or a possum on the roof will keep you awake all night. And the reverse is equally true for someone who lives in the country!

Bringing that analogy back to your organisation, a near miss might be a common occurrence, but no one sees the hazard because “that’s the way things are always done”. Familiarity can easily mask the risk. The blinkers effect gives us a strong argument to say safety inspections should be done by someone who doesn’t normally work in that area. Fresh eyes can be very powerful.

A culture that recognises near misses as an early warning sign and provides the tools for easy reporting is the first step. And near misses need to be triaged and investigated as if the incident occurred, then actions taken to deal with the hazard at the heart of the issue.

The same can be said for feedback. If your organisation’s culture embraces feedback as a positive thing, then it can be a powerful early warning mechanism. Treating feedback as a window into what is really happening in your organisation can be very powerful.

So, our message is to build a culture that recognises the power and value of listening to your staff, customers and community, and consider investing in the tools to make that culture easy for your staff to own.

That is to say, make good use of near misses, feedback and inspections and any other source of insight into what is happening in your organisation. They are your early warning system that can stop serious incidents before they happen. And they can give you the opportunity to drive continuous improvement on your terms, not as the result of an adverse audit finding. Recognise and utilise them as your ‘get out of jail free’ cards.

If you can embed that mindset into your organisation’s culture, you will be way ahead in delivering safer workplaces for your staff and your customers.