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Near misses are an early warning system

Journal Of Commerce
Near misses are an early warning system
Don Schouten

View from the Board |- After the magnitude 7.7 earthquake near Haida Gwaii on Oct. 27, it took almost an hour before B.C. emergency officials broadcast a tsunami alert.


Had there been a huge wave during that time, many communities would have been hard hit because of the delay.

Fortunately, no tsunami was triggered, but the near-miss incident revealed the importance of having an early warning system for disasters like this.

It also served as a wake-up call to many people who recognized the need to be prepared if the “big one” ever hit.

In the workplace, having workers regularly report near misses, and having health and safety committees investigate them, is like having an early warning system.

Waiting for an injury to happen before acting is like waiting for the wave to crest before sending out a warning.

So what counts as a near miss?

Basically, it’s when an incident occurs and there isn’t any injury or damage — but there could have been, given a slight shift in time or distance.

For example, a trench caves in just moments after a worker climbs out of it, or strong winds blow a sheet of plywood off the eighth floor of a highrise under construction and it lands just inches from the nearest worker.

A near miss means something’s wrong: unsafe conditions, unsafe procedures, unsafe actions or a combination of those.

These are the same root causes as for a serious incident, so finding and correcting problems after a near miss is key to preventing workers from being injured — or worse — in the future.

Although all incidents should be reported and documented, not all of them need to be investigated.

When it comes to near misses, only the ones that had the potential to cause serious injuries to a worker, or serious property damage, must be investigated.

So, how do you investigate a near miss?

It’s pretty much the same way you would investigate any other incident.

Find out what happened, look for underlying causes, recommend changes to prevent them from happening again and assign individuals or groups to carry out the actions needed to implement those changes within a workable time frame.

Make sure you document the investigation.

If your company is large enough to have a joint health and safety committee or a worker health and safety representative, make sure they get a copy so they can carry out their duty of overseeing safety.

In a smaller company, discuss the incident at a safety meeting, and if you did an investigation, go over the investigation findings. At a later safety meeting, after the changes have been made, it’s worth checking to see if there are any new safety concerns because of or even in spite of the changes.

Make documenting near misses a regular part of your safety program.

Remind people that the goal is to prevent future harm, so everyone goes home safely.

By the way, immediately after the earthquake, B.C. reviewed its notification protocol and less than three weeks later the government rolled out a new system to issue alerts to the public using social media, email and text.

The province learned from its near miss. Let’s learn from ours.

Please let me know what you think of this or any construction safety issue. I’d like to hear from you.

Don Schouten is the manager of construction with Industry and Labour Services at WorkSafeBC. Don is also a Journal of Commerce Editorial Advisory Board member. Direct all comments or questions to

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