Course 701 - Effective OSH Committee Operations

Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

Problem Solving Techniques


As a safety professional, you are or will be engaged in the process of solving safety management system problems for your employer or client. It's important to have a general understanding of the basic steps involved in the process so that you acquire adequate skills. In this module, we will take a look at the basic steps in problem solving and some of the proven techniques to efficiently and effectively solve your organization's safety management system challenges.

Solving Safety Problems

Solving safety-related problems centers around two key strategies:

  • Finding solutions for the surface cause problems. Eliminating/reducing the hazardous conditions and unsafe work behaviors that will become the actual/possible surfaces causes of accidents, and
  • Finding solutions for the root cause problems. Improving inadequate or missing safety and health programs, policies, plans, processes, and procedures that represent the actual/potential root causes for accidents.

Problem-Solving Process

As with any process, there are a number of required steps involved to ensure a successful outcome. Let's examine five steps that every problem solving task should involve.

Step 1: Understand the problem

  • Describe the observable/measurable conditions and behaviors that represent the "signs and symptoms." of the problem.
  • Determine the nature of the problem. Is the problem one of inadequate leadership or management? Does it involve negative or improper relationships between people? Or is it a problem of process, quality, equipment, or materials?
  • Determine the scope of the problem. Does it affect individuals, groups, departments, the facility, the company, or the industry?
  • Write a descriptive problem statement. Problem statements should be operational. That is, they should be expressed in measurable/observable outcomes. For example; "There has been a 50% increase in the number of strain/sprain injuries in the warehouse over the last six months."
  • Determine if a problem really exists. Is the problem statement accurate? It's crucial that the group achieve consensus on the problem statement.
  • Determine priorities. If more than one problem exists, which one should we solve first? It's important that the group, not an individual, determine the most important problem to work on.

Step 2: Discover the cause(s)

  • Analyze the problem. Break the problem down into component parts. Some simple techniques: Circle key words. Accident investigation - Develop a sequence of steps.
  • Ask who, what, where, why, when, and how, to get to the source or root cause of the problem.

Problem-Solving Process (Continued)

Step 3: Target Solutions

  • Develop specific primary and alternative solution strategies. Focus on engineering, work practice, and administrative controls, or personal protective equipment to make correct corrective actions. Focus on implementing or revising programs, policies, plans, processes and/or procedures to make safety management system improvements.
  • Determine resources and responsibilities. Physical and human resources will be required for most corrective actions and system improvements.
  • Design specific primary and alternative solutions. Developing alternative corrective actions and system improvements will give management choices and a feeling of control over the outcome.
  • Decide on appropriate timelines. The sooner the better, of course, but in some instances, it may be impossible to correct or improve immediately. Generally, you might promote the following schedule: Serious impact - immediate or as soon as possible. Minor impact - within 30 days.

Step 4: Sell the solution

What is an effective recommendation? You'll learn more about submitting a recommendation that "sells the fix" in the next module. When recommendations are not acted upon it may be because the supervisor does not have enough information to make a decision and therefore doesn't act right away. To speed up the process and to improve the approval rate, the presenter of the recommendation must learn to anticipate the questions that the supervisor must answer in order to sign off on the requested change. The more pertinent information included, the higher the odds are for approval.

Problem-Solving Process (Continued)

Step 5: Implement the solution

Your work in problem solving is not done once you have gained agreement on the solution. In fact, your problem(s) may just be starting. Implementing the solution to problems that require reorganization and changes in processes, procedures, policies, and corporate culture requires an understanding of the dynamics of change and transition.

  • Change is imposed by an external source. It is usually threatening to a person. Change may involve a new boss, new procedures, or new products. Change will not succeed unless each affected employee transitions internally.
  • Transition occurs within each affected employee. It's a psychological process of adapting to externally imposed change. It involves changes in behavior and performance.
  • According to William Bridges, Managing Transitions, there are three phases of transition that all employees must complete before successful change can occur:
    • Phase One. Letting go. Ending the old order. Unfreeze old behavior. Acceptance.
    • Phase Two. Adapting. Searching for new identity. Limbo. Neutral zone. Learning new behaviors, performance.
    • Phase Three. Grabbing hold. A new beginning. Refreeze new behavior. Acceptance.

Applying the Techniques

Developing solutions to surface cause problems may occasionally require different tools and techniques than those required to solve root cause problems. So, let's review the problem solving tools and techniques that help address surface causes, and then shift gears somewhat to discuss problem solving for root causes.

But first, let's look at the following scenario and use it as the context within which we will discuss problem solving in each of the two areas. Carefully read the following accident scenario and then reference it to answer the questions that follow:


Image of a return belt

Bob was a new hire employee working as a clean-up person in the finish department of XYZ, Inc.'s particle board plant. On his first day of work, he received an initial classroom orientation on company policies from the personnel department. He was also introduced to his new supervisor who gave him a walk-around tour of the plant. Since his supervisor was quite busy, and didn't have time to fully brief Bob on his new job, Bob was given some simple initial duties to accomplish.

He was busy cleaning up around the floor under the return belt of a conveyor connected to a large piece of machinery and noticed a jammed piece of wood. He removed a guard covering pinch points on the conveyor belt and reached in to remove the wood.

Bob's glove got caught in the return drum nip point, and he was drawn into the machinery. Luckily, Bob was eventually able to pull himself out of the machinery before being injured.

XYZ, Inc. has a mod rate of 1.5 which is worse than average for the industry. Unfortunately, this incident was not a total surprise to the company. Most of their OSHA 300 Log recordable accidents have been the result of injuries to employees within their first six months on the job.

What's a mod rate? The experience modification rate (mod) compares an establishment’s workers’ compensation claims experience to other employers of similar size operating in the same type of business. The mod rate reflects a company's safety record and affects its insurance premium.

  • If the mod rate is higher than 1.0, the employer's experience is worse than expected and insurance premiums will be higher than the average for companies within the industry.
  • If the mod rate is below 1.0, the employer's experience is better than expected and insurance premiums will be lower than average for companies in the industry.

Just remember, the company's safety goal is to achieve a mod rate below 1.0. For more information see NCCI - ABC's of Experience Rating

Understanding the Problems

Incidents like the one above at XYZ Inc. actually happen. If this near-miss incident had been an injury accident it would have had long-lasting negative effects on both the victim and the company. As you can see, it is smart business policy to uncover and correct hazards before they result in injury.

Getting to the Facts: Five-Why Analysis

One technique used in accident investigation to arrive at the surface and root cause(s) of an accident is called "5 Why Analysis." It combines the traditional who, when, where, what and why method of questioning with the more contemporary continuous quality improvement Five Whys technique. This method asks:

  • Who is getting hurt? Are individuals or groups getting hurt over and over, and is it the same kind of injury?
  • What actually caused the injuries? This question looks for the basic cause of the physical trauma to the body. This might be best answered determining trends in the following accident types:
    • Struck by: A person is forcefully struck by an object. The force of the Contact is provided by the object. Example: Struck by a falling object.
    • Struck against: A person forcefully strikes an object. The person provides the force or energy. Example: Running up against a wall.
    • Fall from elevation: A person slips or trips and falls to a level below the one he or she was walking or standing on. Example: Fall over edge while shingling roof.
    • Fall to surface: A person slips or trips and falls to the surface he or she is working or standing on. Example: fall due to slippery floor.
    • Contact with: A person contacts a harmful substance or material. The person initiates the contact. Example: Contacting electricity.
    • Contact by: Contact by a substance or material that, by its very nature, is harmful and causes injury or illness. Example: Acid splashes on a person's face.
    • Caught on: A person is somehow caught on an object that is either moving or stationary. This may cause the person to lose his or her balance and fall, be pulled into a machine, or suffer other harm. Example: A person is dragged into a machine because loose clothing is caught on a conveyor belt.
    • Caught in: A person is trapped or otherwise caught in an opening or enclosure. Example: A person's arm is stuck in a printing machine when it starts up and causes injury.
    • Caught between: A person is crushed, pinched, or otherwise caught between a moving and a stationary object, or between two moving objects. Example: Person is crushed between moving crane and wall.
    • Bodily reaction: Caused solely from stress imposed by free movement of the body or assumption of a standard or unnatural body position. Example: Person bends over to plug in a tool and strains back.
    • Over-exertion: A person over-extends or strains beyond ability to lift, lower, push, pull an object. Example: Person strains back while lifting a box.
    • Over-exposure: Over a period of time, a person is exposed to harmful energy, such as noise, heat, toxic chemicals, or hazardous atmospheres. Example: Person loses consciousness due to lack of oxygen.

Five-Why Analysis (Continued)

  • Where are workers getting hurt? Are they doing their regular job, or are they working for another department when they get hurt? Are workers getting injured more in certain departments or areas of the workplace, or in particular facility locations?
  • When are workers getting hurt? Look for trends in:

    • A particular time of the day. Early or late in the work shift?
    • A particular day of the week. Mondays? Fridays?
    • A particular week of the month. Just before payday? Last production week?
    • A particular month of the year. December?
    • A particular quarter of the year. Last fiscal quarter?
    • A particular season of the year. Just before hunting season?
    • A particular business cycle. Just before annual report?
  • How was the worker injured? This question is directed toward hazardous conditions and unsafe work practices.

    • Were hazardous materials, tools, equipment, being used?
    • What personal protective equipment was the worker not using?
    • Are work shifts too long?
    • Were workers using unsafe practices?
    • Are workers getting hurt as a result of factors within or outside of work?
    • Are workers getting hurt as a result of factors the employer controls, or can't control?
  • Why did the above occur? Did someone do something or create a hazardous condition that indirectly resulted in the conditions and behaviors you arrived at above?
  • Why...? Is there inadequate or missing training, supervision, or accountability?
  • Why...? Is there an inadequate or missing procedure?
  • Why...? Is there an inadequate or missing policy?
  • Why...? Is there an inadequate or missing program?

As you can see, the first set of questions get at the surface cause(s) for the accident. Once we know what directly caused the injury or illness, we begin to ask why to arrive at root causes. Each time a why question is asked, a deeper root cause is uncovered.

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping
Click to Enlarge

Mind Mapping, or "Instantaneous non-linear cognitive deduction utilizing spatial forms in a two-dimensional plane." (huh?) No, actually mind mapping is merely drawing circles and lines to help you quickly think about and categorize ideas, problems, concepts, subjects, and just about anything else. Mind mapping is successful because it takes advantage of the brain's natural ability to categorize ideas in a rapid, but rather unorganized manner.

Look at the mind map to the right. At the center we write the problem. Next, think of the factors that are more obvious causes for the problem. (This works best by letting your subconscious do the work while you watch TV or work on another project) Next, take a look at each factor listed and ask why the cause exists. After a while you would build a diagram similar to the one below.

Using this technique, you will be able to take any topic, project, or problem and quickly determine related categories of processes, procedures, topics or events. Once the mind map is complete, it is merely a matter of reorganizing the information into the more common "outline" format.

Click to Enlarge

Fishbone Diagram

Another tool similar to the mind map is called the Fishbone Diagram or "Cause and Effect Diagram. Basically, it's just a mind map using a different form. The diagram illustrates this. The "Effect" describes the problem. Possible causes are listed under one of several categories that you determine. Generally, these categories might be people, materials, equipment, environment, methods, or procedures.


You are probably familiar with this problem solving technique. Brainstorming can be used by individuals or groups quite successfully to quickly develop a list of possible solutions to problems. There are six basic and unalterable rules to the group process of brainstorming that set it apart from other problem-solving procedures. They are:

  • Define the issue. Make sure everyone is clear on the problem you are going to brainstorm.
  • Critical non-judgment. Defer judgment on any idea that is expressed. This even includes encouraging comments to others or qualifying phrases attached to your own suggestions.
  • Organized chaos. The session should be as freewheeling as possible, with each person voicing whatever ideas come to mind - - no holds barred. Ideas may be expressed in rapid, machine-gun, fashion. Don't limit the creativity.
  • Similar originality. Participants are encouraged to hitchhike or piggyback on the ideas of others. When one person's suggestion sparks an idea by another, it should be instantly expressed. Lots of "ah-ha's"...
  • Quantity, not quality. The more ideas the better. The goal of brainstorming is to get as many ideas as possible. Evaluation and elimination can be accomplished later.
  • Brief summary statements. Don't go into great detailed explanations of your idea. You want the recorder to be able to have time to write down all ideas as team members think of them.

Perception is Reality

The survey is an excellent problem solving tool to help identify the perceptions of a number of employees. What they perceive is their reality, so it's important to understand what they think. Safety committees and coordinators can gain a wealth of valuable information about the safety management system with this technique. To help ensure the survey is effective, do the following:

1. Gather a team. Best if led by trained employees.

2. Determine who you are going to sample. All departments should be represented. Randomly select from three groups: managers, supervisors, and employees.

3. Decide how you are going to conduct the survey. Keep it simple and confidential. Use computer software or manual system.

4. Tell everyone why you are conducting a survey. This is a critical step. Explain clearly. Express the importance of the survey. Explain who is involved, what the survey is about, how it is being administered, and especially why it's important.

5. Conduct the survey. The key to high participation is a quick response. Honor confidentiality and reward participation.

6. Summarize the results. What are the perceptions of each of the three groups: managers, supervisors, and employees?

7. Meet directly with the top decision-maker to discuss the results. This helps reduce misunderstanding and is more likely to get top management buy-in. It also bypasses gatekeepers who might revise the results or prevent the results from being heard.

Last Words

We've discussed a sampling of some common problem solving techniques, but there are many others available that can help you and the safety committee quickly arrive at solutions to apparently complicated problems that might surface. I want to encourage you to continue to explore all available methods. Well, I think it's about time for your module quiz, don't you?


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. Safety committee problem solving usually involves finding solutions to which of the following?

2. Which of the following is an example of a surface cause?

3. The mind map tool is useful only to group problem solving.

4. This activity is an excellent problem solving tool to help identify perceptions of a number of employees.

5. Why is it important to discuss the results of a survey with the top decision-maker?

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.