The iceberg theory of work-related accidents

Last month , a judge ruled that a Japanese employee of Toyota died as a result of overwork, having clocked up over 100 hours …

Last month , a judge ruled that a Japanese employee of Toyota died as a result of overwork, having clocked up over 100 hours of overtime in a month. Overworking is a serious problem in Japan, and the Japanese even have a word for death from overwork - "karoshi".

Fortunately, the karoshi phenomenon hasn't hit Ireland, but work-related injuries and accidents are widespread. According to the Health and Safety Authority, there have been 64 workplace fatalities so far this year, mainly in the construction, fishing and farming sectors. And every year more than 20,000 non-fatal accidents are recorded.

Apart from the trauma these accidents cause to the employees themselves and their families, from an employer's perspective work-related accidents can also be hugely detrimental. They generally result in expensive personal injury claims made by the employee, but the unseen costs are even higher.

Chris Mee, founder of Cork-based safety and engineering consultancy CMSE, explains the "iceberg theory": "People don't understand that if someone gets injured, the actual cost of the payout in the injury claim is only the tip of the iceberg . . . The costs that aren't seen are the major costs."


The "unseen costs" of workplace accidents include the cost of replacing the employee, the investigation into the incident, downtime if machinery has to be stopped while the investigation takes place, and the damage to staff morale.

On average, the unseen costs of accidents are six times greater than the obvious, "seen" costs.

So what can employers do to prevent accidents?

Under health and safety regulations, employers are responsible for protecting the mental and physical welfare of their staff, and are required to have a safety system in place. But for small companies already struggling to manage their limited resources, prioritising safety can pose quite a challenge.

CMSE works with clients to help them take a practical approach to workplace safety and risk management.

One regular speaker at these seminars is a man who lost his eyesight in an explosion in a food factory because he wasn't wearing his protective glasses. Workers who may have been grumbling about having to sit through a two-hour safety seminar suddenly take interest when he recounts his story.

These seminars have a huge impact on workers, and cause safety awareness to soar. But it only takes between three and nine months, Mee says, before the effect to wear off and people start slipping into their old bad habits again. Therefore, the key is to keep reinforcing the message.

"The real issue with safety is it's got to be a continuous process," says Michael Brennan, risk management expert with Hibernian Insurance, adding that a culture of safety must be instilled in the workplace.