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Too Often Safety is Like Thinking About Going to the Doctor

With the cost of health care these days it’s no wonder many of us wait, sometimes too long, before we go to the doctor.  In many ways our choice to welcome and apply safety is the same.  We unwisely wait for things to get really bad, or even fail, before we adopt needed safe work practices or try to determine why failure occurred.  The problem with waiting rather than being pro-active is that it often costs much more.  Procrastination in the face of need is a big negative for many of us and one that plagues businesses too.

For me it was a torn meniscus in my left knee.  At the age of 50 I thought I could easily sprint with my speedy 12-year-old daughter.  I learned the hard way my physical condition of running high school track doesn’t carry into my 50’s.  That bad idea resulted in me waiting it out for several months and trying to convince myself that my pain would get better.  It didn’t and an outpatient surgery later I am now stuck to a stationary bike or elliptical machine for cardio exercise for the rest of my life.  Does this analogy sound familiar with our approach to health and safety maters?  Are there troublesome issues that you know exist but you just can’t bring yourself to deal with them?  What are the reasons…budget, adverse to conflict, downtime and lost productivity, or not significant enough of an issue in your opinion?

Warning Signs

Chest pains are not good especially if you’ve got high blood pressure, are highly stressed, or have a history heart attack in your family.  These warning signs often indicate something bad is likely on the horizon.  So too is the case for your safety condition.  What are some of the warning signs that your safety programs, practices, or culture is in trouble?  Here are a few:

  • “I don’t care” attitude: If either the workforce or management demonstrate an attitude of indifference toward safe working conditions trouble is brewing.  “I don’t care” can be displayed as verbal statements, not taking action when safety concerns arise, or a lack of desire to find out why an injury really  The collective attitude of company is often referred to as “culture” and having your finger on this pulse is very important to ensure optimal functioning.
  • Poor or no performance measurement: Without tracking your efforts how do you know if you are making any progress?  Performance measurement is more than just counting beans as it returns valuable information to help tweak the system where necessary. Without identifying and tracking key performance indicators (KPI’s) you are doomed to make little if any improvement.
  • Not investing in people. The workforce, especially supervision, is human capital that must be stimulated and developed to get the most from them when executing your safety programs.  Front-line supervision is critical for setting the tone and communicating expectations daily.  Their development through training/education, and being equipped with adequate resources, is a key to prevent safety from flatlining.

Lifestyle Choices = Prevention

Eat healthy, get exercise, and manage your stress.  If you do these three things most physicians would nearly guarantee you will live longer.  Often times making a needed lifestyle change never happens especially if it is an elective choice like wanting to lose a few pounds to look better.  For most then, change only happens when forced.   Unfortunately, that too holds true for safety as only after a serious injury or fatality do we agree it’s time to change our ways.  The preferred approach needs to be “prevention first”.  While this may be a lifestyle change for some the return on the investment is huge.  The ROI comes in the form of lower insurance premiums, no regulatory citations, a more productive workforce, a better corporate image, and ultimately a more competitive and sustainable business. The big three safety lifestyle activities that help reduce the chance of a workplace injury include:

  • Management commitment. Everyone needs to see and hear that the owners and leadership of the company have vowed to do what is necessary to make the workplace healthy and safe.  This messaging is important and one that needs to be upheld.  For instance, taking the stance that a production line will be shut down if the injury risk is too great; and new hire on-boarding will have dedicated time to identify safety as a core value and explain that everyone has stop-work authority.
  • Workforce involvement. The best problem-solvers are those that are affected by the problem.  A solution proposed by and for the workforce stands a much greater chance of succeeding.  Safety committees or similar workgroups should be comprised of a cross section of the workforce to ensure adequate collaboration.
  • “Lip service” is avoided by holding everyone accountable for executing their roles and responsibilities.  By allowing a double-standard to exist, or only applying safety when it’s convenient, the wrong message is sent and safety becomes a joke instead of a cornerstone of how a company chooses to do business.

We must be self-disciplined as often times we know what’s best for us but fail to act.  Junk-in equals junk-out and if we think otherwise we are fooling ourselves.  The place to be for safety is proactive through fit-for-purpose prevention activities.  You don’t have to go overboard and believe that outfitting your kid in bubble wrap is what’s necessary to keep them safe everywhere all the time.  It’s about evaluating risk reasonably, being proactive, looking for warning signs, and then taking action rather than ignoring the problem.

Dan Hannan, CSP

Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety, health, and environmental protection for twenty-seven years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Hilmerson Safety Services, Inc. a leading safety consultancy serving the construction and manufacturing industries.  Dan can be reached at dan.hannan@hilmersonservices.com.