November 2, 2022 | Mark Paradies

European vs American Approaches to Root Cause Analysis and Safety

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Root Cause Analysis Broad Generalizations

To compare root cause analysis approaches in Europe vs America, I will make some broad generalizations in the following article. That isn’t to imply that every company in Europe or America fits into these broad generalizations. And there certainly are multiple approaches to incident investigations and methods to improve safety. But I thought I would provide these generalizations to provide a framework to help anyone improve their use of root cause analysis to improve safety.

European Approach to RCA

Regulators and many companies in Europe emphasize that pre-job hazard assessments (safety cases in the UK) are the key to improved safety. Workers wouldn’t be at risk and there would be no accidents if people would just review the job, spot all the hazards, implement effective techniques to remove or ameliorate the hazards and, only then, conduct the work.

In the UK, a company may employ a consultant to write a safety case. These consultants are trained and provide an external set of eyes. Many (but not all) are experienced in the industries and jobs they are reviewing. They generally don’t use advanced root cause analysis as part of their assessment before writing the safety case. They are not part of the workforce and it seems to me that they are viewed as outsiders by the workers. Thus their work is under-appreciated by the workers (who often see the restrictions generated by the safety case as unnecessary – a waste of time).

In European regulatory frameworks, companies are required to provide a safe workplace. If someone is injured or killed, it is almost an assumption that the company has failed to provide a safe workplace. Because pre-job hazard assessments are fundamental to providing a safe workplace, an accident is mainly viewed as:

  1. A failure of the pre-job hazard assessment/safety case process,
  2. A failure of the hazard removal/amelioration techniques, or
  3. A violation of the rules ordered by the pre-job hazard assessment/safety case.

Because of this, many in Europe don’t see root cause analysis as a particularly complex task. Their view is that they need to do is discover which of these three problems above is to blame for the accident, and then do a better job of hazard assessment/safety case, hazard removal/amelioration, and/or enforcing the rules next time . . . then the problems will go away.

There is also a more complex approach has grown in Europe and other places around the world called Safety 2. This approach looks at variation (mistakes) as a normal part of the process and learning is to be achieved by learning from successful variation. I won’t try to describe this more philosophically complex process here but I may address it in a future article.

American Approach to RCA

America’s regulatory approach is much more prescriptive than the European regulatory approach. The regulator (mainly OSHA) writes rules that prescribe ways that employers should ensure worker safety. This includes complex tasks (lockout/tagout, chemical hazard assessments, process safety, …) and relatively mundane safety practices (extension cords, walking surfaces, safety glasses, hard hats, …). But OSHA also has a “General Duty Clause” that requires employers to provide a safe workplace:

“free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely
to cause death or serious physical harm.” 

This general duty implies that companies must adopt industry standards and best practices to ensure worker safety and this greatly expands the company’s responsibilities beyond specific regulations.

In the US, since companies are blamed if something goes wrong the requirement for a safe workplace is very similar to European practices. However, a pre-job hazard assessment/safety case is not seen as a universal fix (although this approach is growing more common). Therefore, some companies (but certainly not all) are more open to process improvement as a solution to problems and accidents.

Because process improvement has a wide range of options to improve human and equipment performance, root cause analysis is seen as a more difficult but potentially valuable process. US companies are more open to investing in advanced root cause analysis tools that can be applied across the enterprise to improve not only industrial, process, and public safety, but equipment reliability, product and service quality, process reliability, and environmental stewardship.

In addition to Safety 2 mentioned above, some American companies have tried to implement Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) to reduce human error by improving human reliability. Again, this can be a complex topic when added to the discussion of Safety 2 and I won’t try to describe it in detail here but we do explain it in our Stopping Human Error Course.

Improving Both Approaches

Strangely enough, both the American and European processes lead to similar results. International companies with facilities in Europe and America tell me that their safety statistics – when normalized for variations in how they are counted – are very similar. This leads me to imagine that both processes can be improved.

How can they be improved? It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who regularly reads this blog/newsletter, but a way to improve both the European and American approaches to safety improvement is to adopt advanced root cause analysis as a standard part of pre-job assessments and post-incident investigations.

The European approach could be approved by using advanced root cause analysis as part of the proactive pre-job assessments and during the development of safety cases. We explain how to do this in the Stopping Human Error Course. And we teach advanced root cause analysis in TapRooT® Courses.

Also, the use of TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis can help European incident investigators to consider root causes outside the three pre-job hazard assessment problems discussed above and find additional ways to improve processes.

In America, using advanced root cause analysis and at a minimum, applying the fundamentals of root cause analysis is needed to ensure all root causes are considered to assure workers are provided with a safe workplace. These same techniques taught in the TapRooT® Courses can be applied proactively to jumpstart safety improvement. Applying TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis proactively is taught in our 2-Day Auditing & Proactive Improvement Using TapRooT® Course.

In both Europe and America, we can start by applying root cause analysis proactively. What if an accident happens? We should see it as a valuable learning opportunity to improve processes and stop accidents.

Thus, applying advanced root cause analysis in Europe or America (or anywhere else) is a great idea! See our public root cause analysis courses being held around the world at this LINK.

Investigations, Root Cause Analysis
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