The Swiss Cheese Accident Model

The Swiss Cheese Accident Model

Reducing Work-Related Injuries

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published September 2017


Swiss cheese ever-so-rarely may present itself with all its holes lined up. It’s im-probable, but not impossible.

Incidents happen even in workplaces dedicated to safety. Training and engagement can reduce work-related injuries—almost to zero—but never eliminate them. (It’s the Swiss cheese accident model.) Nevertheless, getting to zero must always be the goal. Work-related injuries not only take a toll on employees and their families but also affect the business and society at large. A commitment to workplace safety keeps businesses strong, reduces healthcare costs, and improves the outlook of employees, who can start work each day with the confidence they are not at risk of injury.

Lamentably, many times employees themselves increase the likelihood of work-related injuries. How? “Not following training” is one way, says Charlie Arnold, president of Arnold Powerwash LLC in Lewes, DE. Distractions are problematic, too, he observes.

An employer must be constant in promoting safety. “Hold safety training meetings and provide a handbook showing what is expected,” says Arnold. Focus on conditions that are most likely to be troublesome for employees by giving attention to the most common work-related injuries. “In our industry, I would say perhaps fall injuries are common, whether it be a ground-level fall, such as from a trip hazard or ladders and scaffolding misuse.

Employer awareness that work-related injuries can never be reduced to zero—i.e., over a long enough time something will happen—should extend to what to do when something occurs. Employers should have a procedure regarding “what to do if and when there is an injury,” says Arnold. He adds that a company should also be sure it carries the proper workers’ compensation insurance.

Slow Down

Haste and waste—we all know the adage. It’s a maxim that encompasses every dimension of the workplace, including safety.

“From what I have observed through teaching classes, combined with my own contractor experience, I believe that a number of factors come into play as contributors to work-related injuries; but if I had to narrow it down to one thing, I would say that it is employees or contractors getting in too big of a hurry, which leads to carelessness,” says Trey Posey, general manager of Power Wash University in Fort Worth, TX. The antidote is a relentless effort to ensure that employees think before acting.

“Create a culture of safety within your organization,” says Posey. “It has to start at the top.” Leadership must demonstrate that safety matters. “Safety is more than just something you talk about,” says Posey. “Make sure that the entire staff buys into the importance of safety and constantly coaches safety and proper procedures at every level.”

As Arnold notes, the risk to employees differs with the type of work they are doing. “The kitchen-exhaust cleaning side of pressure washing lends itself to chemical burns, as the degreasers used are very caustic,” says Posey.

“I have seen minor burns that just scab up but are very painful, all the way up to major injuries, including needing a skin graft or losing an eye,” says Posey. “Proper PPE [personal protective equipment] is a must when working around chemicals.”

Requirements for PPE must be enforced. “Anyone using these chemicals should at least be wearing safety glasses that are splash resistant and a properly rated respirator and gloves,” says Posey. “It may also be smart to look at wearing chemical-resistant overalls.”

Why would a contractor ever risk injury by going without the correct PPE? Why do any of us do something we know is risky? Generally, it’s the only-this-one-time rationalization that overtakes us. And it’s usually because we are in a hurry.

There’s also the factor of complicity that holds us back. No one wants to be considered a nag, yet sometimes repetition of ‘should’ sounds like nagging to others. However, ignoring a violation of safe practices can lead to a work-related injury—or worse.

Posey ends the safety classes he teaches with a poem by Don Merrell, “I Chose to Look the Other Way.” The poem reminds us we cannot be shy about promoting safety. By not telling a coworker they are erring in practice when we see them doing something unsafe, we could fail to save a life.

Should an accident occur, part of risk reduction includes a quick and appropriate response. Take chemicals as an example. “There needs to be a written policy and procedure of what to do in the event of exposure,” says Posey. “And all team members need to be adequately trained on what steps to take to prevent injury. Most of the chemical burn-related injuries are very preventable even if someone has been exposed.”

Maintain Equipment

The direct human factor in work-related injuries is compounded by an indirect human factor. Complacency about a task or a failure to choose the correct tools for a task are no less risky than not maintaining equipment.

We all understand that driving a car with faulty brakes is dangerous. A pressure washer or ancillary with a part that is worn or not functioning as it should is just as dangerous.

“In the power wash industry, there are many work-related injuries due to the fact that equipment is not maintained properly,” says Bonnie Bradburn, account executive at Joseph D. Walters Insurance in Belle Vernon, PA. “OSHA reports show injuries have been caused by clogged hoses, loose fittings that have separated, and a hose striking an employee in the face and neck.”

The list of injuries recorded is long. “Other serious injuries may include abrasions, slip and falls, blindness, and high-pressure injection,” says Bradburn. “Injuries can be caused from not wearing the proper clothing, such as safety glasses, gloves, and long pants. Breathing exhaust fumes will cause serious injury or death.”

Bradburn’s company offers insurance options for contractors who build their business around pressure washers. As such, she gives some advice for reducing work-related injuries based on experience working with contractors. “Start with daily maintenance to equipment that the employee will be using,” says Bradburn. “Properly maintained tools are less likely to malfunction.”

A trained operator with a machine performing optimally lowers risk of an event. “Provide extensive training on use of the equipment,” says Bradburn. Training should extend to all components of the workplace. “Employees must learn what chemicals can be mixed and how to properly store these chemicals,” says Bradburn.

Also, emphasize the importance of having situational awareness. “Train employees to be aware of their surroundings before starting the job,” says Bradburn. “Write down all the job hazards and your solution to control these risks.”

And never ignore the fundamentals. “Operate a pressure washer in a well-ventilated area,” says Bradburn. “Avoid enclosed areas such as garages, basements, etc. Stay alert. Watch what you are doing, and use common sense when operating a power tool. Do not fill the fuel tank while the engine is running or while the engine is still hot.”

Priority One

Striving for zero work-related injuries is a must. Although there may still be incidents, they will be fewer and infrequent—and if all precautions were taken and procedures followed, they should be minor. (Minor most of the time, as some things are beyond our control. Imagine a contractor losing ladder balance when a tremor strikes.)

To ascertain that a risk-reduction program is as good as it can be, a contractor, distributor, or manufacturer might take advantage of a free consultation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Short of that, there are plenty of new tools at the OSHA.gov website.

A particularly useful tool is a simple “10 Easy Things to Get Your Program Started” (www.osha.gov/shpguidelines/ten-easy-things.html). Many good suggestions bolster those made by the experts we cite in this article. For example, solicit ideas from employees about how to improve safety. And do one-on-one rounds with employees to evaluate how their perception of activities, equipment use, and materials handling matches a checklist of correct methods.

Some workplace behavioral experts recommend graphic illustrations of actual accidents to put a focus on safety. The experts are quite ardent about their approach. Every employer will have to make an individual decision, but do so while factoring in that everyone has an imagination and the objective is to reduce risk, not make employees fear it.

The goal is to work safely in the presence of genuine risks, such as working high. There’s a risk in every activity. People have been killed while sitting in their homes when a plane crashed into their abode or a gas line exploded. No activity—not even sitting on a couch and reading a book—is risk free.

The way to reduce work-related injuries is to be informed about safe practices. Then, follow the practices 100 percent of the time

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