Spotlight on Hazard Recognition

By Rick Bilotto, The Procter & Gamble Company (retired)

We all have a built-in sense to recognize and avoid hazards. For example, imagine that you are driving down a highway and suddenly need to swerve in order to avoid a deer running onto the road; or consider how you automatically slow down when you see children playing near a neighborhood street. On the other hand, we may fail to recognize potential hazards because our experience has taught us that certain objects do not present a risk to our safety. Just consider how often you walk underneath a suspended load, such as power lines, tree branches, light fixtures, or ceiling fans, without giving it a second thought. We don’t think of these objects as hazardous simply because we have come across them so often without incident. We have therefore become risk tolerant.

We see a similar situation in the construction industry: if workers repeat unsafe tasks over and over and nothing happens, they may get a false sense of security. This creates a state of mind of complacency or risk tolerance, which can eventually lead to a safety incident or injury. On average, workers are only able to identify 45% of hazards they encounter during a work day. Why is this number so surprisingly low? Is it due to poor training, a lack of experience, or miscommunication? Is it caused by changes in conditions, inattention, or are there other limitations?

Research indicates that construction workers are highly susceptible to occupational injuries. One study found that the fatality and disabling injury rates in the construction industry are about three times higher than the all-industry average (Pinto et al. 2011). Another study suggests that such high injury rates are due in part to workers’ inability to recognize (and respond to) potential hazards in the dynamic environments of construction (Carter and Smith 2006).

What can be done to help our valuable construction resources increase awareness of hazards in the workplace? CII Research Team 293, Strategies for HSE Hazard Recognition, addressed this topic.

The diagram used by the research team (as shown above) indicates several types of energy sources that could create hazardous circumstances. Some of them are common, like gravity and motion, as described in the examples in the beginning of this article. RT 293’s wheel, dubbed “Energy-based Retrieval Mnemonics,” is just one of the many techniques incorporated into the RT 293 strategies.

The team found that one of the current weaknesses revealed by recent research is the lack of adequate hazard recognition skills among construction personnel on diverse and dynamic projects. The goal of the RT 293 research, in response to this critical issue, was to develop transformative strategies and hands-on tools to equip construction workers to effectively improve hazard recognition and communication. Hazard recognition is a core competency upon which all other safety processes are built. Without strong hazard recognition skills, even safety planning activities that are highly effective (e.g., job hazard analyses and site audits), will not achieve their objectives.

The research team developed and refined three transformative hazard recognition strategies that incorporate essential theories from the field of psychology and other behavioral sciences:

  1. A pre-job safety meeting quality measurement maturity model (the SMQM model) that facilitates continuous improvement of the pre-job hazard identification and communication process.
  2. A system for augmented reality safety (the SAVES system) that immerses workers in a hyper-realistic augmented environment for training.
  3. A visual cue-based hazard identification and transmission board (the HIT board) that records hazards during task evaluation and real-time as the job progresses.
RT 293’s field tests on these strategies revealed that the SMQM model, SAVES system, and HIT Board caused a net weighted overall improvement in hazard recognition skill of 27%, 31%, and 30% respectively! These research findings indicate that the three strategies improve group communications, employee participation and engagement, and safety culture, and function as a cornerstone to an effective safety program.

This CII research study makes valuable contributions toward improving hazard recognition in the construction industry, which is a pre-requisite to making any improvement in safety performance. These pro-active methods of hazard recognition can overcome many of the limitations associated with traditional methods. They have the potential to shift the construction workers’ focus away from risk tolerance to a much more effective mindset of hazard awareness.

Date posted: December 11, 2015