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Bottoms-up: Realizing You Need Safety When it’s Too Late

The belief is that every alcoholic has to hit rock bottom before they realize they have a problem and can start on the road to recovery.  With some employers the same can be said about their safety program.  What triggering event will it take to shake them up and get them to understand that they have requirements to follow and a responsibility to their employees to keep them safe?  An OSHA citation?  A serious injury?  A workplace fatality?

There are many things in life that work the same way.  Some people choose not to purchase insurance or choose not to wear a seat belt.  Unfortunately when something bad happens it’s too late to go backwards, and you’re often left to deal with a life-changing event.  There is too much at stake by taking a “wait and see” approach.

Consider the following example:  Even after having dealt with a series of minor injuries involving a piece of process equipment, an employer fails to identify the need to provide any kind of task-training for new hires.  After all, training takes time away from production since a senior worker would be needed to train the new employee.   In fact the best way to orient the new hire would be to have them work under an experienced employee and learn the job and operation of the equipment from the inside out.  But this could take a few days.

Instead, on the first day the employer directs the new hire to the work station and says: “You’ll figure it out, just read the equipment operations manual.”  The manual is nowhere to be found, so the new hire tries to watch others operate the same type of equipment.

Within hours the new hire loses three fingers.  This incident requires immediate notification to OSHA who completes an investigation and fines the company for a number of violations.  The work-comp injury claim is large, which also causes an increase in the employer’s insurance premium for several years and cuts into the profit margin.

Morale plummets on the production line, and several senior workers quit having had enough of the employer’s lack of respect for the well-being of the workforce.

Is this rock bottom?  How did the employer get to this point, and what needs to be done to right this ship?

This scenario plays out more times than you think, even with large employers that have plenty of resources to apply to safety but choose not to.  Understanding the ineffective components of this workplace is what’s needed in order to identify the road to recovery.

  • The value of the worker.  In this instance the worker is treated as if he’s expendable, replaceable and not a valued component of production.  There is little regard for the worker’s health and welfare—he is merely a means to an end.  Profitability! Nobody wants to work for an employer that is indifferent about their employees.  Attitudes must change at the top, new expectations need to be clearly communicated and accountability must be established at all levels.
  • The connection of safety to sustainability.  Hitting bottom may involve serious injuries, or not, but it almost always results in some impact, financially.  This can include increased insurance premiums, resignations, citations, bad publicity and the inability to qualify for work due to bad safety performance statistics.  With no work, or fewer workers, the ability to sustain a profitable business is threatened.  Everyone must be educated to understand how injuries affect the bottom line.
  • Employers know what’s best for the employee.  Yes, the employer is responsible for the health and safety of its employees, but buy-in from the employees goes a long way to successful execution of safety.  Many times employees have the answers in how to make safety better, how to motivate each other, how best to communicate, and what they need to get the job done on time, on budget and without anyone getting hurt.  Involvement from employees at every level of the safety system is necessary.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and those that apply a proper amount of resources to safety realize that it often returns in multiples.  Sure, employers are bound by laws to keep their workers safe, but in its simplest form safety is about valuing health and life above all else.  Although workers and employers may not agree or get along all the time they must agree on the underlying principle that health and safety is in the best interest of everyone.  Don’t let your company hit bottom before you realize that things must improve.

dan hannan 620About Dan Hannan: Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached atdhannan@merjent.com.

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