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Sep 15, 2021 at 11:16 PM

Why do so many companies have no adequate incident management?


Triggers for my question - with which I am addressing all competent EHS fellows and especially occupational health & safety experts - were recent experiences and discussions with occupational health & safety leads and sustainability officers in charge.

For example: I had call with the health & safety lead of a major multinational group (branded consumer articles) offering to pass by some time for a personal meeting to present our new SAP EHS Incident Management. The response of the Health & Safety manager was that in this company, the incident management was done by HR; which means summarized to take care of the documentation and reporting (e.g. local legal report for Occupational Health Authority), provide charts and statistics on safety performance, etc. The aspect of learning from Incidents was for this company obviously of marginal importance, and the other safety relevant events - near miss, hazard report, unsafe behaviour, Safety Observations, or however named - were inexistent. And a similar state of practice I could discern in conversations with safety practitioners from many and various companies, ranging from small and medium enterprises to big multinationals. Even companies with a certain EHS maturity level were among those that are completely ignoring the aspect of safety relevant occurrences which are not incidents in sense of people injures, damage inflicted or releases into the environment.

At this point, it is maybe helpful to recapitulate the past evolution of incident management. Around 20 years ago, there was a first SAP EHS Incident Management solution. This solution was a purely administrative tool to facilitate the paperwork around incidents, derive incident key performance figures and statistic, plus a first root-cause analysis assure the lesson learnt, derive corrective actions, and make sure that same mishap will not happen again. Around that time, we also had regularly incident management projects with massive add-on developments for web-based accessibility to enable everyone to report incidents, and from project to project it became clearer that the nature of incident management has changed. Consequently, based on project experiences and discussions with customers that were rather the pioneers in occupational health & safety, and quick in embracing new methodologies, we designed the concept for the new SAP EHS Incident Management, which was released more than ten years ago.

The findings of that period I summarized in a paper with the title ‘Sustainable Safety Management: Incident Management As A Cornerstone For A Successful Safety Culture’, which might still today be helpful to understand the underlying concept on which the new incident management solution was modelled. Apart from those considerations there is another factor which joins into the big picture when the historic development of incident rates and the nature and causes of incidents in recent decades are analyzed. A generally made observation was that in the second half of the 20th century, the incident rate went down for a long period of time, which was for sure caused by the improvements in occupational health & safety, notably the development of safety management systems (e.g. based on ISO 45001 / OHSAS 18001). However, the decline in incident rates and consequently the improvement of safety performance came to a halt. A certain level of incident occurrences did proof to be the rock-bottom of this development. The next evolutionary step was to understand the nature of such incidents. The finding was usually that the majority of incidents are the consequence of individual behaviour (e.g. the statistics of the German Berufsgenossenshaften did show that in Germany more than 85% of incidents are caused by very personal and very individual behaviour. And certainly, standard methodologies – as risk assessment - cannot be the tool push the safety performance further towards zero accident.

A first step in the right direction is to stablish in the company an atmosphere and general attitude that safety is in any activity a priority. Without the right maturity level of the of the organization, any futher step is bound to fail. In the textbook depictions of the safety culture ladder this level is usually named ‘Generative – HSE is the way we do business round here’; in other words, the level at which safety has become part of the DNA of an organization. The next steps are then behavioural based safety programs and a generally available incident management. The first to drive corrective actions with respect to the detected at risk behavours. And the second, i.e. incident management, is needed to have visibility, to make transparent the failure with respect to safety, the hidden hazard potential that inevitably statistically will end up also in real accidents.

Now coming back to my question to the EHS community: Why do so many companies, among them multinational groups ignore that aspect of safety management and accept that level of incident rates, and consequently also the risk of potential accidents with heavier impacts on the environment, the asset and on employees, and impact that can have incalculable consequences in terms of money, reputation-loss, and loss in shareholder value?