What is a near miss? It’s an unplanned event that does not result in injury or property damage, but had the potential to do so. We often call these events “close calls” or “narrow escapes.” For example, a scaffold guardrail is missing, a worker backs up and as he starts losing his balance, he is able to grab hold of the scaffold buck and prevent the fall. Other than a racing heartbeat for a few minutes, presumably, no harm, no foul.
The problem occurs when managers or supervisors disregard near misses as non-events because empirical studies confirm a direct correlation between the number of near misses and the eventual occurrence of a costly accident.
A study by Frank Bird stated that one injury and three property damage events occur per thirty near misses. While there may be some debate on the quantities of each, it is widely accepted that the relationship is valid. If managers are not analyzing near misses and taking the appropriate corrective action, he or she potentially loses the ability to prevent costly events.
The key is to encourage near miss reporting by craftspeople and their direct supervisors. A manager must not react negatively or dismissively to the reporting of a near miss. Alternatively, a manager simply sending a written thank you note to the employee that reports a near miss can be quite effective in creating the proper atmosphere and attitude among craftspeople.
A personal example of a near miss on a construction project that I oversaw involved a motorized masonry scaffold. The brick veneer for a particular section of wall had been completed and a single employee of the mason was bringing down the scaffold. The scaffold has two masts that are approximately 15’ apart, with the motor controls located on the platform adjacent to the right-hand mast. While a single operator can watch the latch operation on the right mast, he can only listen for operation of the latches on the left mast.
In this case, the operator heard what he thought was proper latch operation on the left mast, but after a few lever operations and the left mast latches not properly engaging, the platform became out of level and the entire platform and both masts listed to the left, eventually, and fortunately, leaning against and supported by some nearby structural canopy framing, which prevented the total collapse of the scaffold.
There were no injuries and the repairs to the scaffold were minor. Had the mason or the general contractor’s craftspeople not reported the event or if the project superintendent had decided that this was a non-event and not reported it to me, the project team would not have met, fully investigated the event and mandated new policies to prevent a re-occurrence on this or another project, with another occurrence potentially involving costly injury or property damage.
So, when performing loss control surveys or when advising clients in how to minimize their liability, ask them about their policy on the reporting of near misses. It’s a big deal!
W. Dave Looney is a senior construction consultant with Warren. He has more than 40 years of experience in building construction and construction project management. He has managed projects ranging from wood-framed condominiums to state of the art manufacturing facilities. Dave’s work expertise includes failures in building systems, components, and envelopes; construction means and methods; duties of general contractors and subcontractors; and damage to buildings from storms, water, and other causes. He has in-depth knowledge of project planning, scheduling, and staffing. Dave analyzes the severity, corrective actions, and responsibility for construction defects. He determines the scope of work and cost to repair damage to buildings or to correct construction defects. He conducts analysis of buildings and other structures for compliance to current and historical construction and maintenance codes. Dave holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Building Construction from Clemson University. He is a South Carolina Erosion Control Inspector and is a past president of the Columbia, SC Contractors Association.