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Near Miss Reporting: A Different Approach to a Familiar Challenge

A worker is walking through a construction site, stepping over extension cords and planks from a nearby scaffolding erection. He turns a corner and nearly collides with one of his fellow colleagues. He tries to avoid the collision by stepping to the side and spills his hot coffee on his coverall in the process. This causes him to unconsciously step back and bump into a stacking shelf on which a hammer is placed close to the edge of the second row of shelves. The hammer falls and hits the ground.

No one is hurt in this imaginary scenario. However, the worker has just experienced multiple near-miss situations. Anyone of which could have caused a serious injury.

I would like to start by highlighting the overall importance of near-miss reporting. It is essential to a strong safety culture and can provide companies with great insights into potential problem areas within their business. 

A near-miss is defined as an incident that could have resulted in injury, illness, or property damage, but for some reason or other, it did not. often attributed to just a matter of timing or just…pure luck.

When it comes to the applying these definitions to practical situations, however, safety professionals themselves often debate the grey areas. In fact, if you were a fly on the wall in a Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) department’s weekly meeting, at some point you would come to hear discussions such as the following:

  • Do we consider a broken tile as a result of a fallen object a near-miss or a property damage?
  • But no one was there at the time, why should we consider it a near-miss?
  • We have received a number of near-miss reports, do we really need to investigate all of them?
  • No one has used the step ladder with the loose step yet, why are we classing this as a near-miss?
  • Do I consider the incident involving those persons walking under a heavy load as a near-miss?

Many of these questions are often asked as companies do not always get into the correct amount of detail when it comes to defining incident categories. and make no mistake about it, a near miss is an incident that has already happened. Discussions such as the above often becoming more intense when other influences are involved, most notably near miss report quotas, KPI’s or the most significant of all… Near miss reporting incentives!

Providing an incentive or having a general quota for near-miss reporting is a practice some organizations undertake. Although well-intentioned and to an extent can create somewhat of a good reporting culture, the end results very often fall short of expectations. Executives and HSE personnel where such programs are implemented will be very familiar with some of the below common issues:

  • Majority of the near-miss reports are not actually near misses as employees have completely got their categories wrong. The incentive, however, drives them to submit anything under the “near-miss” category.
  • Same near-miss reports being submitted over and over again.
  • Fake near-miss scenarios being submitted.
  • Near miss reports only start getting submitted when the department manager starts getting pushy about it. A few get submitted and then everything goes back to normal.

The bad news is that such problems are likely to be a lot bigger then what most people in a company perceive when it comes to incentivised near-miss reports.  

As part of my day to day activities as a safety professional, I have to say, actually witnessing near misses is relatively uncommon. I do however often come across unsafe conditions and unsafe behaviours. To get the best data to help illuminate future accidents, understanding the difference between incidents, near misses, unsafe conditions and unsafe acts (behaviours) is vital. The following illustration very well puts the different definitions into context:

To improve this process, you may want to consider some of the below practical measures that are likely to enhance near miss reporting within your organization:

1. Consider changing the term “Near Miss Report” …Call it something like “HSE Observations” instead.

This might come as a surprise to you, however, you must remember that a near-miss is an incident that has already taken place. Perhaps you may want to consider a more proactive mechanism in which employees can report unsafe conditions, acts as well as near misses in one place.

I have used the term “HSE Observations” before and developed forms that would allow employees to highlight the category and to describe what they have seen. From experience, the majority of the findings are likely to be unsafe conditions, followed by unsafe acts and then near misses.

Many organisations may also see the unsafe act category as a part of their behavioural safety programs and may want to consider other methods of capturing that particular data.

2. If you really need to incentivise something, incentivise the act of doing an HSE observation.

To better eliminate issues such as having to report a near-miss by having it tied to employee quotas or incentives, you may want to award the behaviour of having an employee perform an HSE Observation. In this situation, they would not have to be obliged to go and actively seek out near misses and can use the process to identify unsafe conditions in the workplace for example. A more proactive approach than waiting for a dangerous situation to present itself.

We must always remember that incentives best work as a reward for a behaviour, not for a result.

3. Train everyone within the company to understand the categories of reporting.

Employees must understand the differences between accidents, nears misses, unsafe acts and unsafe conditions early on when joining the organization. This will allow the company to receive much better information on the at-risk activities or areas within its premises.

Explaining the categories must be one of the essentials of any company general health and safety or Induction training. This element of the training must include everyone from junior staff all the way to the company CEO.

4. Train your HSE department to understand the data and determine criticality.

The answer to the common question of do we investigate all near misses does not always have a straightforward answer. Much expertise, understanding of the company culture, understanding of the workplace risks and the criticality of the event comes into making that decision.

Generally, an HSE department would categorise near misses into high potential or low potential. High potential being a grouping of situations which could have resulted in significant injury, environment or property damage, often investigated similarly to an actual accident. A low potential near miss refers to incidents which are not too significant and generally only awareness is needed to prevent future occurrence.

As subject matter experts, HSE departments would be best suited to make that determination. They must develop the correct procedures to determine criticality, use the correct incident analysis techniques and be able to prevent the issue from occurring through a series of recommendations and actions.

5. Develop systems to capture and analyse the data.

In larger organizations, it is likely that hundreds of such reports are received on a monthly basis. HSE departments are usually tasked with going through the data to determine what is significant and what is not. In many companies, this places a huge strain on human resources unless the right support can be obtained through the use of good information technology systems.

Some organizations may develop databases where reports could be electronically uploaded directly onto a common network. Such systems also allow better analysis and tracking of any actions as a result of the findings.

6. Link HSE Observations to employee performances

To develop a stronger reporting culture throughout your company, one thought might be to set a targeted number of observations an employee would need to do on a monthly basis. This can also be reviewed by the line manager on an annual or a bi-annual basis and be a factor considered when providing feedback to the employee.

This can be a great way of demonstrating the importance of health and safety within an organization and further highlights management commitment to the cause.

The reporting and investigation of significant near misses are instrumental in preventing injuries. Near misses are really a free learning opportunity, because it signals a potential problem without resulting in injury or loss. Unsafe acts and conditions leading to accidents are even more critical to the safe performance of any operation and systems must be in place to capture these.

If your current safety program doesn’t include a mandatory requirement for reporting near misses or unsafe conditions, perhaps it should. Any reporting mechanism should also take unsafe conditions as well with a clear distinction to ensure the correct data is always captured. This commitment to continuous improvement will demonstrate the importance of safety to all employees.

Life doesn’t always give us warning signs, but when it does, we should be mindful of them. Having an internal HSE observation and investigation structure is critical to overall accident reduction efforts. Being able to anticipate and avoid incidents is far less costly than reacting to one.


March 5, 2018

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