Six Basic Steps To A Better Safety Record

The safety profession continues to evolve as new priorities and practices are recommended to foster a workplace culture increasingly conducive to safety.

Bob Eckhardt

The safety profession continues to evolve as new priorities and practices are recommended to foster a workplace culture increasingly conducive to safety. While companies experience high incidence rates due to management Û not employee Û problems, acknowledgment of the fact often is lacking, since a management culture typically nurses a deep-seated belief that employee incidents are self-generated.

High incidence rates usually are blamed Û incorrectly Û on workers’ stupid behavior and failure to follow directions, low pay rates that allow companies to hire only the dregs in order to remain financially competitive, and claims artists. The following steps, if implemented, will readily lead incident-prone management to a significantly improved safety record.

Step 1: Provide a clean place to work. This age-old adage remains at the forefront of safety recommendations, advising companies to spend the time and money needed to thoroughly clean up the plant and provide sanitary restrooms, plus an adequate number of trash cans for convenient use, as well as a comfortable break room. These simple remedies alone constitute a major step toward making the facility a place where people choose to stay and work.

Creating a desirable workplace inherently communicates to all applicants and newly hired employees that they must conform to a suitable standard of behavior. An appropriate regimen would include drug and alcohol testing in addition to a prescreening hiring program. A company that lays blame on ÎbadÌ employees would be advised to stop hiring those workers and implement a screening program that ensures a quality hiring process.

Though no longer in vogue, a saying from the past was ÎTake care of your people and they will take care of youÌ. A more recent iteration of the same principle states that employees work to your level of expectation.

Step 2: Evaluate the workplace. Another time-tested recommendation addresses the evaluation of work processes to assure employees have the equipment, tools, and process flows they need to perform their jobs safely and correctly. Necessary measures might include, for example, providing work platforms for prestressed fabrication; pipe racks to elevate smaller-diameter pipe for finishing bells; automated equipment for block handling; and, a method for truck drivers of safe and easy access and egress to trailer beds.

Safety awareness and timely corrective actions are critical to an incident-prevention program. Companies are encouraged to invest some energy in risk analysis or a thorough workplace evaluation, including ergonomic considerations. While most incidents in hindsight are deemed preventable, accidents that occur are not foreseen. Accordingly, those incidents identified as preventable must be addressed before their occurrence.

Step 3: Reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Originally a staple of safety management, this principle has been ignored somewhat over the past 25 years in favor of behavior-based management as a panacea for changing incident-prone behavior. To implement the rather difficult measure of reward and punishment, management and supervisors need to remain consistent and diligent, monitoring each other as well to help avoid ignoring bad behavior for any reason. People tend to perform in accordance with actual expectations and rewards, and cease actions that result in punishment.

When employees work safely for an extended period of time, they should be thanked sincerely in person by management. The ÎgimmeÌ gimmicks of ball caps, shirts, and other tokens for extended periods of safe work are inadequate as a reward Û no individual will be motivated by a ball cap or Styrofoam cooler to work safely. Conversely, by the same Îemployee blameÌ-based logic, a person will not decide to hurt himself because he did not receive a gift. Yet, once the ÎgimmeÌ mentality is ingrained in the workforce, prizes become compensation, and management is trapped into continuing the program indefinitely.

Step 4: Practice honesty and integrity. Management that does what it says and practices integrity will tend to foster a workplace of workers who follow its direction. By contrast, management that gropes for safety solutions typically uses the program approach involving periodic safety measures or gimmicks. Such programs usually are costly and short-lived, leaving an impression of company management that lacks commitment or integrity.

When safety is integrated into the process and full participation is required, it will not be experienced as a separate, burdensome nice-to-do requirement. Special behavioral programs, focusing on the employee as both problem and solution, have proven to be a temporary fix. That fad is beginning to dwindle as more and more safety and health managers are beginning to question the long-term value and effectiveness of such costly employee fixes.

Step 5: Stop blaming employees for incidents. Companies with an out-of-control incidence rate usually blame their employees for most accidents. The difficulty of implementing this step lies in the requirement to find a cause or causes for incidents in factors beyond the injured employee. Though a well-rested worker who trips over his own feet and falls down for no identifiable reason while walking down a level sidewalk constitutes an employee-caused incident, a worker who turns his ankle in a stone-strewn parking lot is not the cause of an accident. If the focus is on incident prevention, rather than blame, an investigative summary would conclude simply with a recommendation to fix the parking lot.

Blaming the employee for incidents is the great failing of the incident root-cause analysis system. A popular incident-investigative technique, root-cause analysis starts with the investigator asking why the incident occurred, followed by an assessment of why that situation existed, and subsequently, why did that exist, and so on. A problem arises insofar as the supervisor or safety manager almost always is the person performing incident analysis, and identifying themselves or their management as the cause is untenable; therefore, the only one left to blame is the injured employee. Root-cause analysis is an administrative exercise in self-preservation.

Perhaps, a more productive focus would be four major groupings of incident causation: task demands, individual capabilities, work environment, and human nature. Some companies now practice no-fault reporting, so that any identified safety issues or recommendations do not hinge on employee blame. While suggestion boxes are still in use, the person suggesting solutions typically needs to be politically correct or suffer the consequences. Additionally, a dual incident-investigation approach can be applied, whereby a standard root-cause (or other) analysis is conducted; and, if the injured employee is identified as the cause, a second root-cause analysis must be performed that identifies a cause other than the worker. Some human-performance theorists are suggesting that the employee be forgiven for self-injury, as hitting one’s thumb with a hammer, for example, has training properties built in.

As a rule, the harder-working employees are the ones that get injured. Those who don’t work can’t easily get hurt. Such a consideration might well be taken into account before charging off to fire all those that sustain injury.

Step 6: Stop trying to provide a fix for all incidents under the erroneous belief that all incidents are preventable. While the objective is to maintain an incident-free workplace boasting zero incidents, such slogans make for good propaganda despite the fact that risk is inherent in everything we do. Setting speed limits, for example, involves a concept of acceptable risk: Everyone knows that a speed limit of 10 mph on Interstate highways would be far safer than higher speeds, but the current loss of 40,000 lives annually in the U.S. is considered an acceptable level of loss for the sake of travel expediency.

Risk implies that repeated performance of a given task eventually will result in an incident occurring. Thus, sooner or later, an employee will trip over his feet and fall down due to no apparent underlying root cause. When this event finally occurs, the employee should not be punished for the incident; nor should the company be compelled to implement a how to walk safely program Û life happens. One manager aptly addressed the situation when he said, Grow up and see the facts. Many fixes actually introduce a higher unseen risk for a different type of incident.

As the relatively new safety profession evolves, currents fads continue to dictate common practice. The most recent fad Û behavioral modification, or perhaps 5S Û was preceded by the total-quality management craze. Very likely, the next fad will entail a human-performance protocol. With each era, we learn more about what works and what does not work. The six steps as presented are consistent with current best practices in safety management.