Examining the Serious in SIFs

Over the past few decades, a steady decline has been noted in workplace fatalities and non-fatal injuries and illnesses. However, the rate of Serious Injuries and Fatalities (SIFs) are declining much slower than non-fatal injuries and illnesses. One of the current focuses of safety professionals in the United States is the prevention of SIFs through focused efforts on mitigating risk associated with high hazard tasks as a foundational element of safety programs in many industries.

What is a Serious Injury?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), serious injuries involve an amputation, the loss of an eye or in-patient hospitalization. Some safety professionals have further broken-down serious injuries into two categories: life threatening and life altering. Permanent disability or disfigurement would be considered altering, while life threatening injuries are represented by injuries that could be fatal if not immediately addressed.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics manages the Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities (IIF) program that tracks a wide range of information about workplace injuries and illnesses using data collected and reported annually through the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII) and the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). Total reported injury cases increased by 6.3 percent from 2020 to  2.6 million injury and illness cases in 2021. Workplace hazards kill and disable approximately 125,000 workers each year—roughly 5,000 from traumatic injuries, and an estimated 120,000 from occupational diseases.

Some industries are at higher risk for SIFs than others. For example, the oil and gas industry present many hazards for workers, including toxic and flammable substances and the risk of explosions. The U.S. occupational fatality rate for the oil and gas industry is seven times higher than the general industry. Statistically, the most common causes of serious injuries and deaths in this industry are transportation accidents, slip and fall accidents, being struck by an object, overexertion, and exposure to harmful substances.

SIF Prevention

We can recognize and report SIFs, but the obvious and more important question is – how can we prevent them? SIFs are thought to occur when there are high-risk exposures and safety control failures, and both items are allowed to continue without mitigation. To put it simply, high-risk situations where management controls are absent, ineffective, or otherwise not properly implemented may lead to a SIF if allowed to continue.

Methods that have been suggested to assist with preventing SIFs include ideas such as:

  • Identifying work partners who have detailed and accurate written health and safety programs.
  • Confirming that work tasks are performed with risks identified and mitigated through implementation by conducting onsite audits, inspection, and evaluations.
  • Tracking near miss events that can lead to SIFs, analyzing near miss root causes, and implementing appropriate controls.
  • Communicating the specifics of near misses and lessons learned to all workers, including contractors, in a timely manner.
  • Implementing lessons learned immediately following near miss incidents to reduce the likelihood of SIFs occurring in the future.

Using Risk Assessments to Prevent SIFs

Conducting frequent targeted risk assessments can help to identify what could cause injuries or illnesses in the conduct of an organization’s operations. Identifying hazards, assessing likelihood and severity (risk) can help to set us up to take action to eliminate the hazards before they ever become issues, or control the risk associated with these hazards if the hazards cannot be completely eliminated.  Robust risk assessment provides organizations with a consistent, rational framework for designing and managing risks associated with high hazard tasks.

Risk assessment’s purpose is to determine the probability of injury or illness due to specific hazards. Risk assessment also includes characterization of the uncertainties inherent in the process of inferring risk. The process in turn becomes the basis of risk management—courses of action to mitigate hazards at the national, regional, and local levels through the establishment and modification of regulatory standards and institutional occupational health and safety programs. 

The process of risk assessment requires thoughtful and deep investigation of the basis of each hazard’s likelihood of physical risk and adverse health effects. Risk assessment efforts attempt to balance scientific and investigative knowledge with organizational concerns. It involves a systematic approach to the identification and characterization of physical, chemical, and biologic hazards to individuals and populations in their environment.

Here are some steps to consider when developing a formal, comprehensive workplace safety program to help reduce the risk of injury:

  • Engage management and employees.

Overall workplace safety and hazard recognition and reporting must be part of everyone’s job. Line workers and operations supervisors must know that they are responsible for implementing, maintaining, and improving safety program components from the point of task outward into the organization’s products and services.

  • Audit and analyze your workplace and operations.

All tasks and operations should be regularly reviewed for hazards. Equipment should be assessed as well as part of hazard evaluations with worker input into safety concerns and process improvement. When new tasks, equipment, processes, operations, sites, or facilities become part of the business, we must analyze for obvious and hidden hazards with latent risks.

  • Mitigate hazards.

Identifying hazards and becoming aware of hazardous practices, equipment and infrastructure is not enough. As hazards are identified, removal, control, or substitution of new processes need to be a priority.

  • Implement and maintain training.

All workers in an organization need to be trained in workplace safety procedures, hazard identification, and how to mitigate risks. Safety training must be included as part of worker onboarding and refresher training should be conducted on a regular basis. 

  • Continuously improve.

Identifying hazards and implementing process and risk reduction improvements must be a priority and part of everyday activities. Responses to accidents or “near misses” must be communicated among the entire employee population, especially when other work teams can learn from the hazard controls and improvements made to lower risk.


The last 50 years since OSHA’s inception has seen significant progress toward improving working conditions and protecting workers from job injuries, illnesses, and deaths. Yet, we still have not secured a handle on reducing SIFs. Frequent and dynamic risk assessments coupled with a strong commitment to hazard identification may hold the answers to how to reduce SIFs.

Instead of focusing on metrics, we must focus proactively on the identified issues and work toward innovative mitigation strategies. If we want to “prevent” then we must remain ahead of the curve by documenting and investigating near miss events, auditing sites and facilities for hazards that might otherwise be overlooked and move quickly to implement hazard controls to achieve “as low as reasonably achievable” risk profiles.