By Diane M. Calabrese / Published June 2023
Safety saves lives. Yes, safe work practices require an investment of time and money, but there’s an incalculable return on investment.
“Many view safety as an added cost; however, a well-done safety program actually works to keep costs down,” says Michael Draper, safety director for the PWNA [Power Washers of North America]. “There are savings through reduction in workers’ compensation rates, fewer billable hours for a hurt employee, avoiding OSHA fines, etc.”
How does an owner counter complacency about safety? “In addition to training that may occur on an
annual or even less frequent basis, it is strongly encouraged to have weekly safety meetings, or what might be referred to as ‘toolbox talks,’” says Draper. “These types of meetings reinforce other less frequent meetings and instill a culture of safety.”
In a culture of safety, there is an alignment of equipment, processes, employee expertise, and approaches (including attitude). Focus and situational awareness prevail.
Even in the best safety culture, the day-to-day routine—especially the day-to-day of good outcomes—can lead to subjectivity. And subjectivity may be the beginning of a bad decision. The subjectivity would go something like this: there have been no incidents of any kind tied to a lapse in safety. We might just skip the toolbox chat, given it’s not mandated. Not having the session could mean that an issue that might be mentioned by an employee is not, and the subjective view that everything is fine takes hold.
A third-party perspective helps maintain objectivity. “Third-party validation always is a great method to ensure an honest and objective evaluation of a safety program,” says Draper. “When all safety is handled in house, biases can occur based on preferences to scheduling or productivity.”
We have all heard the warning that “speed kills” in connection with driving. But any time the tempo of
an activity outpaces due diligence—being in control at all times—risk increases. A push to fill an order or complete a job that requires a safety bypass invites trouble.
“I tell my employees ‘Safety first and foremost,’” says Claudia Hirschochs, president of Vector Chemicals in Youngstown, OH. “Since we work with chemicals, safety is always first and foremost and does not allow for complacency.”
Methods for keeping people alert are multiple. “We use safety sessions, meetings, procedures, and signs,” says Hirschochs.
Every employer wants employees to complete the day in the same healthy state they began it. Thus, preventing injury or worse, death, is always a top priority of safety.
But the culture of safety has documented financial benefits tied to it. The biggest one of all is that a single safety incident may be so costly it puts a smaller company out of business.
“When a company does not have proper safety procedures in place, there are a lot of things that can go wrong,” says Hirschochs. “Company equipment as well as supplies and materials can be damaged. Employees could be injured.”
Moreover, the costs attached to a safety breach add up in several ways. “When an accident happens, it burdens a company with additional expenses such as replacing or repairing any damaged equipment and materials,” says Hirschochs.
An injured worker may also lead to higher workers’ compensation premiums, explains Hirschochs. There may also be the cost associated with the need to hire someone to fill the job role of the recovering injured party.
“Having to hire a replacement, even if temporarily, for the injured employee also means time to train the replacement,” says Hirschochs. “Better to do things safely and correctly than make costly mistakes.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) takes a no-nonsense view and in the introduction to a 270-page document, “Training Requirements in OSHA Standards” (pdf form at OSHA.gov), puts the onus on owners: “Safe jobs exist because employers make a conscious decision, each and every day of the year, to make protecting workers a priority in the workplace.”
The amount of assistance provided by OSHA is enormous—factsheets, brochures, posters, newsletters, and more—and is proportional to the seriousness with which the entity takes worker safety.
Participation is a significant factor in making a workplace as safe as possible. When employees are engaged in safety and can make recommendations, and especially when they step forward to identify possible weaknesses, a strong culture of safety maintains itself.
In reality, nothing maintains itself without attention. Muscles weaken, gardens become overgrown, the mind forgets…Safety, too, needs attention, even in a workplace environment where seemingly every precaution has been taken and all risks mitigated.
With a multi-dimensional safety training program already in place, Hydro-Chem Systems Inc. in Caledonia, MI, is in the process of implementing a peer-to-peer safety incentive program, explains David Presley, president of the company. It will allow everyone to be more involved with safety.
The peer-to-peer approach emphasizes that it’s not only lead trainers or management that have responsibility for safe practices. Everyone does.
Presley’s company makes use of multiple tools for ensuring safe practices. It takes advantage of web-based safety training programs with short, informative videos, for instance.
One program per month is the usual frequency, and the training is for all employees, explains Presley. Ladder safety, office ergonomics, and fire extinguishers are just a few examples of topics that have been or will be covered.
“We also have a group of eight employees we train in CPR/AED every two years,” says Presley. The employees volunteer for the CPR and AED [automated external defibrillator] training. For those who don’t have such a program in place, a good place to begin when seeking training is the American Red Cross.
“Once every six months, we run mock safety incidents, unannounced,” says Presley. “In our last one, we staged someone on production getting a serious laceration, with fake blood all over an arm. This way the responder really thought there was a need, and we could gauge the response to take care of our employee.”
Consultants can be valuable at seeing things others might have missed. “We used an outside OSHA consultant one time,” says Presley. “The consultant did not work for OSHA, so the agreement was if something was found it was not reported except to the company for correction.”
Would Presley recommend others use consultants? “An outsider will probably find one or two items that seem acceptable to you but may not be by the book, as in our case,” he says, and that’s important.
In the case of Presley’s company, the report was very good.“We did find out that we had a safe workplace and were able to recognize our employees for doing an outstanding job, outside of minor items that we have corrected,” he explains.
A consultant, whose task is to thoroughly scrutinize a workplace’s safety procedures, can provide peace of mind, then. Assurance that everything being done is being done correctly leads to that peace.
“Having a safe work environment helps in many ways to bolster the bottom line,” says Presley. “When employees feel they work in a safe environment, they work harder and more efficiently to produce goods.”
More efficient production of goods is definitely tied to safety. “Suppose you have fewer safety incidents, which saves the company money with insurance costs, work time lost, and workman’s comp,” says Presley. “Scrap or damaged materials can also cost the company money if an employee is not practicing safe work practices.”
There’s an OSHA poster titled “Job Safety and Health: It’s the Law!” that must be displayed in every workplace. (There are a few exceptions where state OSHA postings supersede because state requirements exceed federal ones.)
The poster is available in many languages. It outlines both the rights of each worker and the obligations of the employer. The first obligation of the employer is to provide a workplace free from “recognized hazards.”
No employer wants to be debating with a federal agency about what was “recognized” and what was not after an incident—however small—occurs. So, prudence coupled with engagement are essential to getting it right.
There are many ways to dissect and discuss the elements present in a culture of safety. But the basics include commitment, vigilance, communication, training, and learning (from mistakes).
Commitment begins at the top. The company leader(s) must set the parameters and make sure there is follow through.
Vigilance on the part of leader(s) and employees ensures that issues such as observation of a coworker who is impaired or cutting corners on the job are reported. That kind of reporting will only happen if there is excellent communication between employees and team leaders. An employee must know how to report and not fear retribution.
Training is a given for new and current employees. Peer-to-peer training for all job functions and for safety is a documented way to improve communication as well as achieve its primary goal.
Near misses—someone nearly slipping off a ladder but reclaiming balance just in time—are not good, but they are opportunities. Use any almost-happened incident as a way to rethink approaches. Is every risk-reducing redundancy in place?
If not, make the addition.