Looking for a lasting impact: how do we really learn from accidents?

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A new research project has been launched to help the health and safety community to learn from effectively from incidents and near misses, explains Neal Stone, director of policy and communications at the British Safety Council.

Earlier this year UK Power Networks won a prestigious media award for a hard-hitting safety campaign video, Speak Up, aimed at the company’s many employees who carry out high-risk activity working to maintain the electricity supply to millions of homes and businesses in London and the south east.

We have shown the five minute video at our events over the last few months. The dramatised incident is disturbing and depicts the electrocution of a young line worker and the devastation his death wreaks on his wife and immediate colleagues. Our audiences have told us that the message the video sends out is powerful and one that should stick. It has relevance to people working in many sectors way beyond electricity supply.

Incidents and accidents impact on individuals and organisations in different ways. The prevailing view among practitioners and the wider health and safety community is that we need to do much better in learning from incidents to help prevent injuries in the future. But often our interest is localised and the awareness of the incident, an understanding of the causes and the actions put in place to prevent a reoccurrence don’t go beyond the people in the work group or the site.

We do need to improve our effectiveness in gathering the information and data concerning workplace incidents from ‘near misses’ through to major injuries. But we need to do much more than gathering it. On those occasions when we do collect information concerning the cause and consequences of the incident we do not always apply the learning as effectively as we should in pursuit of the goal of preventing such incidents in the future. What do we do to evaluate the extent to which ‘Learning from Incidents’ (LFI) has a longer-term impact? Have the desired changes in behaviour been sustained over time?

Glasgow Caledonian University is currently undertaking a big piece of research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which seeks to evaluate the existing evidence concerning the theory, practice and policy of LFI in the workplace. The British Safety Council, along with Loughborough University, the University of Aberdeen, the Energy Institute and others, is actively supporting it.

The research project, which kicked off in mid 2013, has still some considerable way to go and is grappling with the various theories – drawn from adult learning, organisational learning, sociology, psychology and law – together with policy and practice to help construct a unified theory of LFI and a practical toolkit to help bring about the hoped for improvements. This is difficult territory.

Going forward it will require those involved in the regulation and management of workplace health and safety to be receptive and imaginative in considering and using unfamiliar learning techniques which the research has identified as having impact.

But do not be deterred from reading on if the project seems a bit dry and theoretical. The British Safety Council and other participants such as the Energy Institute will have the opportunity to feed in the experience of our members as the research moves forward. Key to the success is identifying how to strengthen the link between LFI theory and practice and helping those undertaking the research to see first-hand what works best in an operational setting.

Questions that need addressing include the role of storytelling, how to avoid information overload and the value of conveying information personally. Our members have extensive experience of different approaches to LFI which we will feed into the project.

Showing the UK Power Networks video and our use of a drama group, the 2macs, is a recognition that learning and particularly learning from incidents does not have to be dry, bureaucratic and overloaded. Above all, the learning has to have a lasting impact. Hopefully the Glasgow Caledonian University research project will help move us much closer to that goal.

The LFI research project background. 

Follow Neal on Twitter: @Nealleonstone



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