When evaluating the success or failure of an organization’s safety programs, most safety professionals rely on metrics such as the frequency and severity of accidents, injuries, and illnesses.

Looking at failure through numbers, however, only can do more harm than good. How many times have workers been told that they are a critical component of their organization’s safety programs? Yet workers are the key to the successful outcomes of safety programs because safety awareness is a crucial aspect of such programs (learn more in Awareness vs Complacency: The Value of Reviewing Safety Moments).

When it comes to protecting ourselves in any given situation, being alert and present is essential. Unfortunately, most workers get so caught up in day-to-day distractions while on the job that they fail to maintain a critical level of awareness (see Distraction, Fatigue and Impairment: What Any Safety Professional Can Do for more).

This article will cover the importance of hyper vigilance for occupational safety and how to make it part of your organization's safety culture.

What is Hyper Vigilance?

Hyper vigilance is a kind of situational awareness, that is, an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors used to detect threats. In the context of workplace health and safety, this means being continuously aware of your surroundings, as well as the aspects of the working environment and processes that may pose a potential threat. It also means being especially attentive while doing jobs that are not-routine or occur in non-routine frequencies and environments.

To paint a clearer picture, consider the case of Bob the Electrician. Bob is working on a generator in a coal mine. In addition to the usual hazards and risks associated with performing his job task, like dealing with high voltage and combustible fuel, Bob also needs to be mindful of the fact that being underground exposes him to additional hazards and risks, including roof falls, flammable gases, and vehicles (also see Working in Confined Spaces? You Need the Right Training). Therefore, Bob needs to be hyper vigilant and ensure that he continuously monitors his gas meter, watches for vehicle traffic, and pays close attention to his surroundings for signs of structural integrity—all while performing his assigned job duties.

Hyper Vigilance and the Safety Pyramid

The Safety Pyramid (also known as Bird’s Triangle or Heinrich’s Triangle) is based on the study of industrial accidents conducted by Frank E. Bird Jr. in 1969 and the theories of accident ratio discussed by H.W. Heinrich in his 1931 book Industrial Accident Prevention.

The Safety Pyramid is where we get the famous 1:10:30 ratio that has come to define so many safety practices and policy developments. But what, exactly, does the ratio represent?

The base of the Safety Pyramid represents safety violations and incidents of unsafe behavior. The second level represents near misses. On the third level, we have minor recordable injuries. The fourth level represents more serious injuries, those that result in lost work time. Finally, at the top of the pyramid we have fatalities. The ratio reflects the fact that, as we climb up the pyramid, the severity of the accidents increases while their frequency decrease. The 1:10:30 ratio, then, shows that for each fatality in a workplace, there will be 10 serious injuries and 30 minor accidents.

In recent years, the base of the pyramid has been getting narrower, and the number of near misses and recordable injuries in the middle of the pyramid have deceased and started to plateau. Serious accidents and fatalities, however, have not become significantly less frequent. Even with all of the exceptional safety metrics they use, companies are not necessarily any less likely to have a catastrophic or multi-fatality event.

The reason? They're still reacting to near-misses instead of proactively looking for unsafe conditions and behaviors. They are, in other words, focusing so closely on the numbers that they are overlooking opportunities for improvement.

Safety professionals, then, need to take into consideration the working conditions and the safety culture at each level of the pyramid. This will allow them to determine the best way to promote hyper vigilance and prevent incidents at the bottom end of the pyramid—unsafe behavior, near misses, minor accidents—from escalating to the higher, and more serious, end of the pyramid (see Safety and the Broken Window Theory to learn how small violations can lead to bigger problems).

How to Create a Hyper Vigilant Safety Culture

In recent years, many organizations have begun to realize the significant positive impact that a culture of safety can have on their business operations. Successful organizations tend to have a strong safety culture. This may be due to the fact that workplace culture influences most aspects of work activities, affecting the behavior of individuals and groups at all levels of the organization.

Moreover, in high-risk industries, safety should be one of the dominating characteristics of an organization’s culture.

So how can we create a hyper vigilant culture of safety across all industries? Safety professionals can:

There is no such thing as being too safe. Workers who cause accidents usually engage in unsafe behavior. The only way to correct this problem is to observe and change workers' attitudes towards safety. It is only when workers are more hyper vigilant and aware of safety that the success of safety programs can be guaranteed.