Crying over spilt coffee
An incident involving a mug of hot coffee provides a powerful lesson on managing health and safety. By Kimberley Lawry. The other week I spilt my coffee. At home mind you, but a safety incident none the less. I did not need to fill in an incident form, report it or investigate it, but it did get […]
An incident involving a mug of hot coffee provides a powerful lesson on managing health and safety. By Kimberley Lawry.
The other week I spilt my coffee. At home mind you, but a safety incident none the less.
I did not need to fill in an incident form, report it or investigate it, but it did get me thinking about safety and health, about near miss reporting, hazard identification and control mechanisms.
It got me thinking about whether I was a hazard that morning and what I could have done differently to stop the burn from happening in the first place. Perhaps more importantly, it made me realise how jargon-filled health and safety can be.
All of this from a spilt coffee you say?
Well yes. And not surprisingly, because the incident happened at home it had more of a personal impact. There was no legal requirement to report, investigate or do anything about it. Yet in hindsight, it provided a powerful lesson in why managing health and safety (H&S) is so important irrespective of whether you are at work or not.
First the facts.
Incident versus accident
This was an incident – being an “unplanned event (spilling hot coffee on my hand) that caused injury (first degree burn)”. An accident is similar to an incident but supports the mindset that it could not have been avoided. In my case, this was not true.
As I had done many times before, that morning I poured my freshly brewed hot coffee into my travel mug, popped the lid on and made my way out the door. But this time it was different. This time, the lid was slightly ajar. This time I was in a rush. This time the series of events caused my hand to be dowsed in hot coffee, the hot water smartly burning my hand and in hindsight, giving me a good couple of recovery weeks to reflect on how this incident could have been prevented.
Near misses happen at home and at work
A ‘near miss’ is an incident which does not result in injury, illness or damage but could potentially have done so. In simple terms, it is any time you have a close call. Many say the term ‘near miss’ is a misnomer; that a near miss is an incident and the only difference is you were not hit. This is why you will sometimes hear the words “near hit”. I prefer the latter as it makes you think about what may have happened.
‘Near hits’ are discussed a lot in H&S with the basic premise that by reporting near hits, you can help prevent serious accidents by reviewing and coming up with changes to eliminate, isolate or minimise the hazards.
In my case, I had a few ‘near hits’ happen prior to the incident actually happening. A couple of hot splashes out of the drink hole opening (I started filling the cup lower); the thermos kept the water too hot (I waited a bit before drinking it).
Truth be told, there were a few ‘near hits’ which, had I reflected on, could have prevented the incident. But what was the actual cause of the burnt hand?
Root Cause Analysis
Most H&S investigations undertake a root cause analysis to identify why the incident or accident occurred in the first place – so that you can stop recurrence. One simple way to do this is the ‘Five Why’s’ – where you ask the question ‘Why?’ five times to unravel the layers of incident-related symptoms, until you arrive at the root cause.
You can then do something about it. As an example, the ‘Crying over Spilt Coffee’ incident looked like this and the answers took less than a minute when I asked ‘Why did this happen?’
- The lid was not on properly.
- The water was too hot.
- I was carrying too much.
- I was up too early.
- I was tired (root cause).
It is not necessarily that the hot coffee was the main hazard.
A post-incident review might have shown that I genuinely did not think my coffee cup was a hazard. After all I had never had a burn before, let alone a spill from my cup. If it was a workplace, perhaps it would not have made the hazard register. However, it is the compounding effect that is important here. That morning I was tired. I could have been really fatigued. In fact, there can be a multiple of different wellbeing or health factors impacting on people each day.
What has fatigue got to do with it?
Mental fatigue is caused by prolonged periods of demanding cognitive activity. It is easy to understand why a business owner may suffer from mental fatigue, and the impact of mental fatigue on cognitive and skilled performance is well-known.
In essence, fatigue leads to a reduction in performance, in your ability to think, to make decisions. You are also more likely to disengage from physical tasks earlier and reach your maximum exertion levels earlier. No surprises here when you think about it.
Are you a hazard?
It is often easier to focus on physical, equipment or environmental hazards, but how often do you review whether your people themselves are a hazard.
Many business owners wear multiple hats and juggle multiple commitments and Entrepreneurial Fatigue Syndrome (aka mental fatigue) is gaining momentum and has wider impacts than spilt coffee. The more fatigued you are, the higher the probability of other hazards occurring.
If you are tired, stressed because of work or family reasons, fatigued or emotionally drained, you could very well be a hazard yourself. If we need to avoid behaviour that puts you or others at risk, then identifying the times when people are a hazard and controlling these is important.
So what are the ‘take-homes’?
- H&S strategies can be useful for both home and work – look for root causes.
- Make sure you are not a hazard – monitor mental fatigue, and
- Report, report, report near misses – they just may stop an incident from happening!