The term “near miss” is a common phrase in the safety world. If you’re new, it may be confusing. What exactly is a near miss?

Let’s say you’re sitting in your office and you hear a loud BANG!!! It catches everyone’s attention, and management runs out to the factory floor. It’s discovered a piece of machinery seized up, causing a sudden stoppage on the line and the loud noise.

There’s no real damage to the equipment; quick lubrication, and it’s back to work as normal. There was a delay in production that was caught up on by the end of the day. There were no injuries, no damage, and no financial losses. But could there have been?

COMMON DEFINITION

The standard definition of a near miss is an accident that didn’t happen that could have.  Yes, we are all extremely aware that the name does not match the definition, and Near Hit is a better term, but I digress.

Technically, any hazard can be a near miss. There’s debris on the floor – I didn’t trip and fall, but I could have – Do you see what I mean?

YOU NEED TO DEFINE WHAT A NEAR MISS IS FOR YOUR OPERATION AND YOUR TEAM. 

Keep in mind that this definition may change over time.

You can describe a Near Misses in a kind of flowchart.

All incidents start off with either an unsafe act or an unsafe condition. The exception being an act of God type stuff, which even some of those could be argued, but that’s a different rabbit hole.

Not all unsafe acts or conditions result in accidents, though (this is why people take risks.  Once again, a whole other rabbit hole). 

WHEN THE ACCIDENT DOESN’T HAPPEN, TECHNICALLY YOU HAVE A NEAR MISS ON YOUR HANDS.

  • Unsafe act – a person not following safe work practices
  • Unsafe Condition – a hazard left not corrected or not identified
  • Near miss – an incident that could’ve happened but didn’t
  • Accident – an incident that did happen and caused injury, damage, or financial loss

A NEAR MISS IS ASKING, “WHAT IF?”

A near miss is looking at a situation, event, or hazard and asking, “What If?” What if this happened instead or what if that happened. If the answer to those questions is significant, you have a near miss on your hand.

  • What if the machine seizing up caused $100k in damages?
  • What if it caused a breakage that flew out and hit someone?
  • What if it shut down operations for a week?

YOU HAVE A NEAR MISS – WHAT DO YOU DO?

They should go through the same rigorous reporting and investigation process. You need to identify the root causes and use corrective action to eliminate the causes.

WHAT?!! I have to do this for every near miss?? For every unsafe act or condition??

Ideally, yes, but it’s understood that you may not have the time or the resources for that. So, a good starting point is to determine a clear definition of what type of near misses you will do this for. It could be a $$ amount of possible damage or the time/amount of productivity stoppage. 

I used to have one band-aid rule; if it took more than one band-aid, then we did a full investigation.

NEAR MISS DEFINITIONS MAY CHANGE OVER TIME

As your injury rate decreases, you will find you have more time. As the amount of time available increases, change your definition of a near miss.  And investigate more of them.

Start with investigating incidents that happened, but there were no injuries or damage. To level that up to investigate close-calls like hazards. These are the ones that could’ve been bad. Then you level that up to investigating all reported hazards. And so on.

As you change your near-miss definition, your incident rate will get closer to zero.

FOCUS ON NEAR MISSES FIRST

Many facilities don’t pay attention to near misses or don’t have a program at all. Others put one in place when they have the time to handle them or focus on them. Most times, I see near-miss programs as one of the last things added to a safety program.

I kind of feel like they may be shooting themselves in the foot.

**Pro Tip**

If you actually spent more time and effort on near misses, it makes your job easier. If you investigated them, found their root causes, and applied corrective actions, your safety program would improve faster. This is because you’re focusing on proactive issues, instead of spending your time on what has already happened.

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN

This is an excellent primer for what a near miss is, but everyone has a different definition. I want to hear yours. In the comments below, tell me your definition of a near miss. Which ones do you investigate? Extra points for a great near miss story.

Here’s my best near miss story: I had a worker who was slicing meat with an automatic slicer. The machine jammed. He was trained on lockout tagout.  He unplugged the machine to unjam it, which involved reaching into the machine. But, he failed to unhook the air nozzle.  This was not part of the current LOTO training. An unfortunate deficiency in the program that the near-miss investigation found. When the jam was cleared, the machine cycled, catching his hand in the machine. He was working in a room production all by himself. He wasn’t injured, he couldn’t remove his hand. So, he had to yell for quite a while because it was a hearing protection area. Until he got someone’s attention to release the air and free his hand. He didn’t even get a bruise. But this near-miss opened up a boatload of corrective actions. And, obviously created a memorable moment.

Subscribe on your favorite App

Hi, I'm Brye (rhymes with sky)!  I am a self-proclaimed safety geek with two decades of general industry safety experience.  Specializing in bringing safety programs to a world-class level and building a safety culture, I have trained and coached many safety managers, just like you, on how to effectively manage workplace safety in the real world.   I would love to help you too.

Get started with my weekly newsletters: