Safety Advisory Foundation for Education & Research

Being predictive and preventative

Last-minute risk assessment process helps workers mentally check in
Mar 19, 2018

By Dave Fennell

I was recently on a long drive across a flat and straight stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway. I determined that the best way to stay safe on this drive was to remain in the moment with my attention on the immediate issues: keeping the vehicle between the lines, maintaining a safe speed and keeping space between me and the other vehicles on this stretch of road. I was also cognizant that I needed to be watching far ahead up the road to see what I would be facing next in this “workplace.” An occasional check in my rear-view mirror and a glance down at my odometer was handy to see where I had been and how far I had come, but it was the information that I was gathering by looking ahead that was most valuable in keeping me safe on this drive.

These same principles need to be applied to safety in our workplaces. A safe workplace is dependent on staying focused on the present, anticipating what will be happening next and predicting and preventing incidents by looking into the future. Yet, when I look at traditional approaches to safety, I see a disproportionate amount of energy and resources allocated to reporting, justifying and reminiscing on what has happened in the past, essentially, looking in the rear-view mirror. Safety needs to be more about looking ahead and being predictive and preventative. Here are four basic safety approaches that can help you and your organization achieve a more proactive safety culture.

Use a pre-job planning tool. These tools are a way of assessing the work to be done, defining the steps of the job, identifying potential hazards and establishing ways to eliminate or reduce the risks associated with the task. Whether you call your tool a job safety analysis (JSA), a task hazard assessment (THA), a field-level hazard assessment (FLHA) or something else along those lines, the principles remain the same. Before the work starts (the ultimate in proactivity), we need to ask: What am I going to be doing? What are the hazards and risks? What do I need to do about those? These pre-job planning processes are tools to coach the workers through this proactive look at their upcoming task. It forces them to predict what could potentially go wrong and to do something about it before the work starts. It could be as simple as identifying tripping hazards in the work area and proactively doing some housekeeping activities to ensure the boards, hoses, ruts, snow or cords are removed. It could be more complex such as identifying a specific procedure, tool or equipment that is to be used. Digging a trench, entering a confined space, accessing an elevated work area and working next to moving traffic would certainly need a more thorough approach.

Use hazard identification tools. Hazard identification processes and inspections are means of proactively addressing those physical conditions that could lead to incidents in the workplace. A defective tool, a frayed cord, ice buildup, an unguarded piece of equipment, an opening in the floor and poor lighting are all workplace hazards that need to be identified and corrected to prevent an incident. Hazard identification can occur before a job starts but it can also be performed as the work unfolds. These tools can be as simple as a short form with spaces for identifying the location, the hazard and potential actions to correct the hazard or they can be more complex and more detailed such as a hazard wheel, checklist or inspection. Providing prompts on what to look for can be helpful for workers.

Identify near-miss events. Near misses are events that have occurred where there was no damage, no injury and no loss. Some purists may argue that a near miss is not a predictive or preventative tool in that something actually did occur and that we lost control of something in the workplace. We do, however, need to take advantage of the lessons we learn from each of these events to help us prevent future ones where, under slightly different circumstances, there could have been loss, injury or damage. It is extremely important how we position near-miss reports when we think about the workplace culture we want to create. If we label them as incidents, they could take on a negative connotation and workers may be reluctant to report them. Viewing them as a forward-looking tool that can help us predict and prevent similar situations creates a positive environment and encourages involvement by workers to look for and report near misses. The complexity of some near misses may warrant a more intensive inquiry of how and why they occurred to truly understand how we can prevent future events.

Use a last-minute risk assessment process.
Our workplaces are dynamic and constantly changing, so we need a means of mentally checking in as the job unfolds to see if there is anything occurring — or anything that could occur — that may lead to an incident. Tools to help our workers with this proactive approach will include some basic questions: What am I trying to do here? What could go wrong? How bad could that be? Has anything changed? Stop and Think, StepBack 5x5, Take Two, Point and Shout are commonly used tools for this process. These are simply prompts that help us step back from what we are doing to assess what could go wrong. They can be used as part of a pre-job planning process to predict what could go wrong or can be used as an ad hoc process throughout the job to prevent anything that has changed from leading to an incident.

Upon completion of my long non-eventful drive, I realized that what kept me safe was that I spend most of my time looking ahead through the windshield and predicting what I may be encountering further down the road. Knowing where I had been, how far I had come and that no incidents had occurred so far was nice information, but it was not what had made it a safe drive; it was the proactive pre-trip planning, hazard scanning and checking in with mental Stop and Think moments that had been the predictive and preventative aspects of that journey.

Dave Fennell is an independent safety consultant and motivational speaker based in Cochrane, Alta. He is well-known for his expertise in risk tolerance, human factors and behaviour-based safety. He can be reached at , or visit for more information.

Courtesy Canadian Occupational Safety Magazine