A Breath Away from Catastrophe

Posted Jan 21st, 2016 in Tips & News

by Tom Wojick , EHS Today
on January 21, 2016 @ 12:00am


How many times were our accidents, injuries and catastrophes literally one breath away from a different result? Isn’t a near-miss really just a “one breath away” moment?


How many times in our lives have these words been meaningful? I can recall a few near-catastrophes in which I was literally one breath away from a serious accident. I remember sitting in my car after losing control on the first icy road of my driving career; I was one breath away from going down an embankment.

I also vividly and sadly remember sitting with both my Mom and Dad when they took their last breaths. Unfortunately, the full meaning of this word escapes our attention until we are present in these moments and realize that it is the essence of life and death.

I wonder how many times our accidents and injuries and catastrophes were literally one breath away from a different result? I suspect many more than we realize. Isn’t a near-miss really just a “one breath away” moment?

The Chaotic and Hectic World of Work

Today’s work environments are filled with increased and competing demands and technological advancements and distractions. Multi-tasking has become a way of managing this new reality. Some say this new pace of work leaves them breathless.

In a recent meeting with a group of managers and supervisors, we explored the question, “Are there current conditions in our culture that might be creating the potential for safety issues?”

Some concerns surfaced immediately: “We are in a state of chaos!” “Everybody has an agenda and thinks it’s the priority.” “We are driving our operators to distraction and increasing everyone’s stress levels.” “If this continues, it’s not if we will have an accident, it’s when and how serious.”

What if “one breath away” was not an expression of a close call, but a method or practice that could reduce chaos and prevent a near-miss from becoming an unfortunate reality? 

The human factors that most frequently contribute to or are the primary reasons for accidents and injuries are complacency, stress, fatigue, distraction and haste. Each of these has many root causes that would need to be be fully addressed. Complacency, stress, fatigue, distraction and haste create the conditions for accidents because they steal one’s attention and focus away from the task at hand. 

Choose Mindfulness Over Mindlessness

Technology is revolutionizing workplace safety. From robotics that keep humans out of harm’s way, to man-down systems that send out alerts for employees in need of assistance, our workplaces are safer than ever. But there is still one area that is persistently and intimately connected to accidents and injuries that technology has not fully solved: the human factor. The contribution of human carelessness or mindlessness to all accidents and injuries ranges from 50 percent to 90 percent. The ability to reduce the involvement of human factors can have a significant effect on an organization’s return on safety.

Although technology is rapidly creating solutions to safety issues, our hectic pace continues to thrive, increasing the chances that human errors will continue to significantly contribute to accidents, injuries and near-misses. Organizations can fight this by creating the conditions for a mindful workplace.

To create a mindful work environment in which employees feel motivated, comfortable and encouraged to practice mindfulness requires management’s active involvement in setting expectations and creating new norms that might be contrary to the existing organizational culture. Management must be active role models – they must be believers.


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