What causes accidents at work?

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By understanding what causes accidents at work you are in a much better position to prevent them occurring.

In this article we look at the general causes of accidents so you know what to look for.

These general causes are referred to as Immediate  & Basic or Root causes.

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Immediate Causes of Accidents

The immediate causes of accidents are the events that happened immediately before the accident occurred.

Immediate causes of accidents are most often just symptoms from underlying issues.

Immediate causes of accidents include.

  • Unsafe or substandard behaviours or practices
  • Unsafe or substandard conditions.

So unsafe behaviours and unsafe environments are both considered to be immediate causes of accidents.

When substandard or unsafe behaviours are serious enough to breach laws they are referred to as improper acts.  

There are 4 main areas of unsafe acts that cause accidents at work.

  1. Improper loading, placement, lifting, positioning, and usage of equipment.  For instance, if you overload a forklift or place a palate on the edge of a shelf, you increase the possibility of an accident happening.
  2. Removing, making useless, or neglecting to use safety equipment and devices.  For example, if you neglect to wear a hard hat in a construction area, and a loose screw falls from the floor above you, hitting you in the head, you could be injured quite severely.
  3. Failure to warn, secure, or follow procedures.
  4. Horseplay or working under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.

There are also 4 main areas of substandard conditions that most often cause workplace accidents.  These are.

  1. Inadequacies in guards, protective equipment, warning systems, illumination, or ventilation. 
  2. Being exposed to noise, radiation, extreme temperatures, or hazardous environmental conditions like gases, dust, or smoke.
  3. Defective tools, equipment and materials
  4. Congestion or restricted action and a disorderly workplace.

As mentioned, unsafe acts and unsafe conditions are merely symptoms of what causes accidents at work.  They are not the underlying problem.

A proper accident investigation should uncover the underlying problem.  Because only by fixing the underlying problem will similar incidents be prevented.

Underlying problems are referred to in safety investigations as Basic or Root causes.

Basic Causes of Accidents

Basic causes of accidents, which are also known as root, real, and underlying causes, explain why the substandard acts and conditions existed in the first place.

Basic causes are the fundamental reason for what causes accidents at work. 

Basic causes are not as apparent as immediate causes and require a bit more digging to gain control of them.  Just as there are two major categories of immediate causes (Acts and Conditions), there are also two major categories for basic causes. 

They are personal factors and job factors.

Personal factors bring light to why people engage in substandard practices.  For instance, it makes sense that a person with poor eyesight should not be doing a job that requires good eyesight.  In the same vein, a person who doesn't fully understand the importance of his or her job will not take pride in that job, and this will affect job performance. 

Some personal factors include a lack of skill or knowledge, a desire to shortcut standard procedures because it makes things faster and easier or because it is accepted or rewarded, and the person thinks it is not worth it to them personally to do the job properly.

Job factors help you understand how important safe structures and processes can be. Even if there are adequate standards and compliance for the design and construction of a structure or work process, the work environment can turn hazardous.

Equipment can wear out and produce an inadequate product, create unnecessary waste, or breakdown and cause accidents if it is not properly used and maintained.  Other factors include a lack of operational procedures or standards, poor communication, and inadequate tools and equipment. 

These all lead to a lack of control on the part of management.


Lack of Control

In addition to immediate and basic causes the 3rd major reason for what causes accidents at work is 'lack of control'.

A lack of control arises when there is inadequate systems, standards, or compliance.  Control is one of the four key management functions: plan, organise, lead, and control.  This applies to any manager, regardless of level, title, or activity. 

An effective manager will be aware of performance standards and what to do when there's a loss of control. 

He or she plans and organises work to meet standards, leads people to meet these standards, measures performance, evaluates the results and either praises or constructively corrects employees depending on the situation. 

This is management control, and without it, the balance between safe working conditions and hazardous working conditions can be thrown off and lead to losses if they are not caught in time.

There can be 3 reasons for a lack of control: 

  • inadequate systems
  • inadequate standards
  • inadequate compliance

An inadequate system neglects to cover vital processes like inspections, maintenance, emergency preparedness, and training. 

Inadequate standards are either not specific enough, or not high enough. Standards specify who does what, when, and how often. They also let people know what is expected of them and measure how well they are performing against a benchmark. 

When people do not follow standards, there is inadequate compliance.  This is what managers feel is the biggest reason for failing to control accident loss, but studies show that inadequate standards are actually the main culprit. 

Regardless, managers who correct these three issues will be able to develop an adequate systems that maintain appropriate control.

Safety management in the workplace is a process.  Which means if should continually evolve and improve.

We hope this article has given you some helpful insight into what causes accidents at work.

If you liked this blog we have a short online accident investigation course with you may find interesting.