April Fool

In our office, we love an anecdote, as an occupational hazard, many of these anecdotes come in the form of tales of injury and mishap, either to ourselves or one of our nearest and dearest. Although we naturally see patterns everywhere in life, one pattern has stood out from our anecdotes. My brother’s accident prone-ness.

Is nature playing a cruel trick on just a select few?

Accident proneness is not a concept that the general public take issue with, we will happily bandy about statements like, ‘my little Tommy, he’s always falling over, so accident prone!’In the context of organisational risk, the term is more cautiously applied and dare I say, unfashionable, but why?

With more and more companies taking time to carry out proper analysis of accident and ill health records, the question still lurks in the subtext of many reports, particularly those which appear to show individuals with repeated tendency to injury within their workplace, is this individual just more likely to have an accident than their co-worker?

Accidents are complex beasts, most, if not all have many causal layers. There may be environmental factors at play such as poor lighting or housekeeping, which affect our ability to accurately judge danger or even identify it!Organisational factors can be just as important, with time pressure, cultural norms and peer pressure acting either as a trigger to certain risk taking behaviours, or as positive reinforcement for poor safety.

There have also been some interesting debates surrounding the personality traits that determine someone’s willingness to report an accident or leave it un-reported. If most of us were to consider just small groups within our businesses, we would be likely to find both those who would report without hesitation, those who may take longer to consider the consequences, perceived or real, of making a report and those who may take some real convincing. Within these groups the impact of accessibility and design of reporting systems can be high, so these too can hold the answer to individual reporting patterns.What about actual accident prone-ness – what is it? Is it real? Many argue, yes.

I particularly like one area of thought which attributes such accident proneness to an occupied mind rather than an empty one, a kind of very high level distraction. The short, slightly abstract and less technical version goes a bit like this;

Let’s imagine our brain as a mobile phone with a certain processing capacity, all the time we are running on an operating system in the background, imagine our operating system deals with things like breathing in and out and the kind of internal functions we need to continue with, more or less regardless of external stimuli.Our ‘apps’ are our thoughts, our calendars, calculators, games and documents, much like our phone, we may be focussed on one app in particular like a budget calculator when we are worrying about our finances, but we could be giving some attention to one or more apps simultaneously (that’s a lot of our memory allocated to apps!).

Meanwhile, we are also constantly roaming for signal so that we can be alerted to external danger (see where we are going now?).

So – here comes the point - the theory is, that for some individuals, they are running so many apps that this interferes with their ability to detect and respond in time, or appropriately, to external stimuli such as a hazard, and they consequently interact with the hazard, possibly with an injury outcome.

Another aspect of this argument is that when we allocate a certain degree of mental resource to a complex task or problem, simple motor functions suffer, such as walking or opening a door or pouring a hot drink.

Now think of that accident prone person you know, are they someone who is a ‘deep thinker’ getting ‘lost’ in their thoughts more than others seem to? Is there a solution to this? Maybe, but this is unlikely to focus on the individual, instead when looking for improvements to the environmental, organisational and equipment related hazards, take into account those who may be ‘away with the fairies’ that little bit more frequently and grow a culture where everyone looks out for one another, maybe we should call it the ‘sibling approach’ but that’s another blog entry..

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