The Health & Safety Executive in the UK defines a near miss as an ‘event that doesn’t cause harm but has the potential to cause injury or ill health‘.
Near misses are events that didn’t harm anyone, but could have. They are not accidents, but they could easily have been accidents if the circumstances or outcome had been slightly different.
For example, if a pallet load falls from a forklift and hits the ground. No one may have been injured, but they could have been.
Is it a near miss? Yes, it is classed as an ‘incident’ and would most likely be a near miss.
Why? If someone had been standing where the object fell, they would almost definitely have been injured or killed. Unless the area is completely out of bounds to other staff or visitors, then there is a significant risk that someone could been struck by the object.
If this was the case, it would be considered a near miss. It’s a potential accident that was narrowly avoided, through chance or luck.
Near misses are often unintentional but can be powerful learning opportunities. They should not be ignored but used as a positive tool to help reduce risk in future.
How common is a Near Miss?
We have all experienced near misses in our daily lives, both inside and outside of the workplace. They happen more often than you might think.
If you ever felt like you had a lucky escape or a close call, something could have hurt you, but luckily it didn’t, then that was probably a near miss.
- Have you ever went to cross the road but had to take a step back because there was an oncoming, speeding vehicle?
- Have you ever stepped outside in the winter and slipped on ice but got away with it?
- Have you ever tried to lift something up off the ground without realising how heavy it was?
All of these types of scenario could potentially result in an injury, and there are usually certain actions that we take to try to avoid them from happening.
Of course, because an injury didn’t occur, the simplest thing to do is to carry on with what you were doing.
If we have experienced a near miss outside of work, it is likely that we will have taken a mental note of what happened and try to make sure it doesn’t happen in future. Let’s face it, most of us don’t want to intentionally injure ourselves!
We usually reduce future risk by adjusting our own thought processes or actions. Also, we may decide that the way we carried out an activity wasn’t suitable and try another approach.
In the workplace, however, we should take a slightly more formal approach to these events. It is good practice to investigate such incidents to assess opportunities for improvement.
Ideally, you should record the circumstances surrounding the incident, then identify and track improvement actions.
As no-one is physically hurt in a near miss event, there is no legal requirement to report or record it in the UK, unless it is deemed a Dangerous Occurence.
What can we learn from a Near Miss?
Near misses usually indicate that something went wrong. That is why it is important to ask questions about the causes of the incident.
Why did that material fall off the pallet?
Was the load balanced?
Did the forklift driver assess and plan the lift?
Is the operator appropriately trained or qualified?
Was there anyone close-by that could have been injured?
There are many questions that could be asked in any given scenario. Root cause investigation techniques, such as a 5-Why Analysis, can be used to help you identify the main reasons for the incident occurring.
The root causes of an incident can vary widely and might include improper training, unsuitable equipment, lack of planning, inadequate maintenance, human error due to time pressure etc.
While it is never possible to eliminate all risks entirely, a near miss is an event suggests risk may not be controlled effectively and that you should proactively try to improve the current state.
Should you investigate every Near Miss?
If you don’t have near miss reporting in place in your business, then it’s likely that near misses happen, but you don’t know about them.
In this scenario, you may not hear about a problem until it results in an injury. By this stage, it’s too late. If the near misses are reported, it means that you can assess and prioritise actions as you see fit.
By putting in place near miss reporting, you can investigate what went wrong. What caused the near miss? What can you do immediately to prevent any further risk to people?
As soon as you have the knowledge of an event, you have the ability to take preventative action before anyone comes to harm.
The likelihood is, if you don’t fix the issue that caused the near miss, it will happen again. Only this time, the probability of someone being injured will have increased.
Building trust and a strong reporting culture amongst your team is fundamental to taking a proactive approach health and safety management. The difference between outcomes with a positive reporting culture versus one where issues are ignored, can be significant.
Reducing the chance of an Accident
It takes us back to Heinrich’s Triangle Theory, which stipulates that the broader the triangle at the bottom, then the broader it is at the top. In other words, increasing numbers of unsafe acts and near misses mean that there will be a proportionate increase in the number of serious injuries and fatalities that occur.
Taking the opportunity to improve with the information gained from a near miss, is one key way to stop further near misses of a similar nature from happening.
Let’s look at an example of being pro-active with a near-miss:
Near Miss Example
Graham, an employee at an motor parts assembly factory, slips on some oil that has been leaked onto the factory floor. He is young, fit and a footballer. Luckily, his physical fitness and agility means that he manages to hold his balance and he doesn’t fall to the floor. As he is very busy and didn’t come to any harm, Graham doesn’t report the issue at the time and gets on with his work.
Graham’s team have daily catch-up meetings in the work area, where their team leader asks about safety. As she does daily, his supervisor asks ‘Have there been any been any incidents, accidents or near-misses to report?’.
The question triggers Graham’s memory of what happened the day before. Due to the open culture in the company, Graham feels like he should mention the near-miss for the sake of his fellow employees.
Although it took his supervisor to ask the question, Graham was commended for reporting the near miss. An investigation found that the oil supply system to the assembly line had several leaks across the factory which were causing an ongoing slip risk to the workers.
As a result of the near-miss investigation, management took immediate action to resolve the leak issues, enhanced the preventative maintenance regime for the supply system and are now considering whether to upgrade the flooring in the factory minimise risk of slips.
How could this have been different?
For the incident above, it was fortunate that Graham reported it in time. Had a less able-bodied member of staff slipped on the oil, they could have fell with significant force and potentially ended up breaking a hand, wrist or even a hip.
This demonstrates not only the importance of reporting a near-miss, but also in having an active and open reporting culture within the workplace.
Near misses can often appear to be very minor incidents, but under slightly different circumstances, the outcome could have been much worse.
Embrace the Opportunity
Near miss reporting shouldn’t be used to play the blame game. By reporting a near miss, workers are taking the time to let you know about a problem. They are putting forward ideas for improvement. By doing so, they are helping to create a better health and safety culture. That’s a good thing.
Finally, remember that a near miss is an event that could have caused harm. If you don’t investigate a near miss, you are missing an opportunity to prevent a future accident.
If the near miss repeats, next time, someone could be injured. And, when an accident occurs, it does become a legal requirement to record it, and if its serious enough, to report it to your local regulator.
For more help and tips on Health, Safety and Environment, make sure to subscribe to Safeti School on your favourite podcast platform!