Have you ever been walking and a truck pulls out right in front of you? A few steps quicker and you might have been hit. Have you lost your balance at heights and caught yourself or been saved by a safety harness or guardrail? Has something fallen from a crane overhead and nearly hit you? A close call could easily have been a serious injury or a fatality. Close calls are accidents waiting to happen.

Each year, almost 240,000 construction workers lose work time due to injuries on the job. For each person injured, probably four or more are almost injured. We call these “near misses” or “close calls.” In total, approximately one million close calls occur each year. A 2003 study of almost 700 construction Laborers in the northwest found that 56 percent had zero to one, 29 percent had two to five and 14 percent had six or more close calls during the previous year.

Like real safety incidents, close calls are caused by a variety of production pressures and safety hazards. Everyone may be rushing to get the job done and not paying close attention to where they are going or their work. Close calls can also be caused by unsafe conditions that have been ignored (e.g., guard rails left unfinished or trip hazards not corrected) when workers feel they do not have the time or the responsibility to correct them. Whatever the cause, an assessment of why a close call occurred is the best way to take necessary action so that the next similar incident is not a serious injury accident.

What should be done to prevent close calls?

Most companies do accident investigations, but these only focus on the tip of the iceberg. Yet, any close call could have been an accident if conditions had been slightly different. In fact, real injury incidents are just a tiny portion of the total incidents that might have caused a serious injury. Realizing this fact, some companies do close call investigations as well. Then, they can get a true picture of the major hazards on their site and where corrective actions are needed.

The first step is a company and union commitment to reporting close calls. Company safety personnel or a joint health and safety committee should establish and publicize a reporting procedure.  Each reported incident, then, should be investigated the same as incidents that actually cause injuries or illness. Based on the investigation and its assessment, corrective action should be implemented.

Safety is no accident. A safe worksite requires paying attention to close calls. They reveal the major problems and result in effective prevention. Close call analysis is the best way to uncover potential problems and make changes before injury occurs.

[By Scott Schneider]