Almost 132,000 occupational accidents occurred in Finland in 2016. This figure includes wage-earners and entrepreneurs (including agricultural entrepreneurs). The majority of the accidents took place at workplaces or while commuting (more than 109,000). Fatal accidents numbered 24 during the year. The annual costs of occupational accidents are estimated to be approximately EUR 2.5 billion. However, it is difficult to put a monetary value on human suffering. In the light of these figures, zero accidents seems to be a distant vision. How could occupational accidents be prevented most efficiently in the 2020s? What should we know about their mechanisms?
Before industrialization, accidents, including occupational accidents, were interpreted as God’s will, with prayer being the best way to prevent them. According to this mindset, people were powerless against the forces of nature. However, a number of other accident theories have been proposed during the past century.
Are occupational accidents concentrated among a small group of people with an inherent tendency to have accidents, meaning that it is a personality trait? Today, we already have better information for answering this question in the form of more advanced theories on accidents. The next important development from the accident tendency theory mentioned above was to acknowledge that, in addition to the person themselves, the work environment also influences the emergence of accidents. According to this, human and technical accident factors make up a chain in which one part failing causes the entire chain to fail, similarly to dominoes. From the point of view of preventing accidents, it is essential to prevent any single key factor from failing. This also resulted in the “iceberg” model in which both near-misses and the most severe accidents – deaths – are viewed as being caused by largely the same reasons.
It has also been suggested that the causes of accidents can most commonly be found in errors by the management. Safety should be managed in the same way as anything else in a company. The supervisor is a key person in this management. This insight opened the mindset known nowadays as safety management.
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk of resilience. This theory emerged in environmental science, and it emphasises the ability of an organization to foresee and circumvent threats to it. According to the theory, occupational accidents are the result of variation in human performance. Technology should be built such that it allows human errors without the risk of accidents. Here, it is also possible to talk about flexible technology, whatever it means in each case.
Scientists nowadays agree on one thing. People make errors, that is what makes us people and not machines. How can errors be minimized at a construction site where hundreds of employees representing different nationalities apply their own views of safe operations at the shared workplace? Taking human factors into consideration in management, planning, supervisory work and work performance could be the key in the pursuit of zero accidents. How could it be realized at sites amidst the hurry?