Unsafe Acts vs Unsafe Conditions

Which Came First: Act vs. Condition?
Imagine you are a supervisor at a manufacturing plant that is dependent on moving heavy materials. Forklift operation is part of your everyday routine. At the end of a shift, a forklift driver informs you that their forklift’s brakes stopped working. You follow your company’s procedure and place a red tag on the steering wheel with a note to maintenance that the brakes are not working. The tag also signifies to the other shifts not to use the truck.

When the next shift arrives they get slammed with deliveries. The shift feels shorthanded and asks a worker to man the forklift that was previously tagged. The worker climbs into the driver seat and spots the red tag. They read the tag, but decide they can judge if the brakes are manageable. The worker starts the truck and heads toward a shelf. They realize the brakes are completely dead and swerve left to avoid hitting the shelf. This causes the driver to run into the buildings closed garage door, putting two holes in it, and knocking it off it’s tracks.

This accident was caused by a combination of an unsafe act and an unsafe condition. The unsafe condition: the forklift was left operational with faulty brakes. The unsafe act: an employee knew the brakes were faulty and decided to drive the lift anyway.


Which is to Blame?
In the above scenario which is more hazardous, unsafe acts or unsafe conditions? For the case that unsafe conditions are more hazardous, one could argue that the company should have included in their procedure something in addition to placing a tag on the truck to immobilize it. Ultimately, a functioning fork truck was in the facility with faulty brakes. For the case that unsafe acts are more hazardous, one could argue that the employee consciously chose to drive a fork truck with prior knowledge that the brakes were malfunctioning.

Determining if the condition or the act was the leading contributing factor for an accident is often a difficult one. It is of upmost importance to hold employees accountable for their actions, but this includes supervisors. When you dig into the situation that led to an accident, the details may reveal that more could have been done to improve the conditions which would eliminate the hazard in the first place. When given the option one would want to engineer out any possible hazards. This improves conditions. One would not want to constantly gamble on an employee’s safe behavior to prevent accidents. Generally, conditions are more predictable than behavior.

In a workplace, to be successful, a company needs to plan and prepare for possible conditions. A little planning can go a long way. Though it is easier to point out unsafe acts in an accident one needs to also take into account the supervisor’s responsibility to maintain a safe working environment. At times it can be trivial, but one should always review if conditions could have been improved to prevent an accident.

You cannot discipline or educate a condition. Conditions need monitored to insure they are safe. Your next accident could be caused by an unsafe condition you failed to see. Keep in mind unsafe acts could only be half the story when investigating an accident.


JADCO Manufacturing, Inc.
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