Investigation of Causative Factors Associated with Summertime Workplace Fatalities
Questions about this research.
Why did the Department of Labour undertake this report?
This report stems from a three week period after Christmas in 2005, when 10 workplace fatalities were reported to the Department of Labour (DoL). This high number of fatalities prompted DoL to look into whether there are consistently higher numbers of workplace fatalities during the Christmas/New Year holiday period and summer season – and if so, why that is.
How was this research undertaken?
Nationwide workplace fatality data from DoL databases, covering the past six years (2000 to 2005) were statistically analysed to investigate annual and seasonal trends (by industry, region, workers’ age, employment status and other variables). In addition to the analysis of existing data, the fatality investigation reports were reviewed in order to determine the contributing factors.
Also, semi-structured interviews were conducted with DoL investigators, advisors and engineers, and many industry experts including representatives from Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions, in order to identify issues that might be associated with a summer peak in work related fatalities.
The sample size seems small, does this matter?
DoL provided researchers with its complete database of 362 workplace fatality records for the six years from 2000 to 2005. Although this data set was relatively small for the scale of analysis being conducted, it represented the most reliable data available. The report is careful to distinguish between any apparent trends, and those that can be proved to be statistically significant.
Did the research conclude that there are more fatalities in the summer time?
Yes. The results indicated that there was a relative 22 percent increase in fatality occurrence for the summer, as compared with the spring. There is also a higher level of workplace fatalities in the autumn. Relatively fewer fatal incidents occurred during the winter as compared to other seasons. This seasonal trend has been found to be statistically significant.
What other important findings were there?
- Male workers aged between 55 and 64 years have the highest incidence of work related summertime fatalities. This trend is applicable to all industries but particularly to the agriculture sector.
- Male workers between 35 and 44 years of age are most likely to have a work related fatal incident in autumn.
- Independent of season, older workers (aged 65 and over) are suffering the most effects from workplace incidents.
- There are two peak times when work-related fatal incidents are most likely to occur, one is late morning (between 10.30am and 12.30pm), and the other is mid afternoon (between 2.30pm and 3.30pm). This trend was applicable to all industries, but is particularly applicable to the agriculture sector.
- Over half (52 percent) of work related fatalities involved a vehicle. Vehicle rollover accounted for 23 percent of total workplace fatalities investigated and nearly 40 percent of workplace fatalities in the agriculture sector.
So what do these findings mean?
This report helps us to frame new questions, like, why are there more workplace fatalities between 10.30am and noon, and between 2.30pm and 3.30pm? And from them, yet more questions: What is the impact of nutritional factors on concentration? Has technology like ride-on farm bikes extended the working lives of people in the agriculture sector? And what challenges might this present?
This research report provides clues to the answers, but not the answers themselves. These will come from further work the Department of Labour now wants to carry out in partnership with stakeholders including industry, business and unions.
The report talks a lot about the contribution of human error, does this mean that employees are to blame for incidents?
No. It is critical that the term ‘human error’ is properly understood. Identifying ‘human error’ allows us to ask why a person’s decisions and actions made sense to them at the time. It should be seen as a symptom of other things that are wrong deeper in the work system. In the report, ‘human error’ has been used to classify a variety of incidents where memory lapses, slips in behaviour and mistakes (for example, misjudgements, distraction errors or inadequate knowledge) have led to a fatality. These slips, lapses and mistakes are only one part of the cause of injury. For example, a memory lapse may have occurred because a person was asked to do a task they had not done for some time; a slip in behaviour may have occurred as a result of fatigue; and, a misjudgement may have been made because a person was given incorrect information to base a decision on.
So what is the implication of human error in workplace fatalities?
The vast majority of human errors and procedural violations can be avoided, or at least minimised. Consequently, this finding demonstrates an area where industry can make significant improvements. The research points to areas such as workplace systems design, training and workplace culture, where improvements could make a huge difference to incident, injury and fatality rates.
So does the report identify some of the workplace factors that are likely to contribute to increased risk of workplace fatalities?
Yes. Factors that increased risk that were identified included:
- Hours worked per day
- Lack of recovery from fatigue
- Tight timescales/deadlines
- Staffing levels
- The amount of casual labour
So where to from here?
This study is a first step in improving the Department of Labour’s understanding of the reasons behind workplace fatalities. DoL intends to take a positive approach to the findings, focussing on ways to raise awareness and promote direct action to reduce workplace fatalities. DoL will be developing collaborative partnerships for the delivery of key messages. We will be actively seeking the support of others – including industry representatives, business organisations, unions, and individual business – to promote awareness and action in workplaces and the wider community.