Safety in the Workplace Requires a Team Effort
By Randy DeVaul
It seems that no matter what combination of safety measures are put in place, people still get hurt at work. Why would a worker perform a task that would endanger his or her life or limbs?
Employee training, manager and employee observations, performance management and disciplinary actions, employer-supplied personal protective equipment, safety incentives and recognition awards, federal and state/provincial regulatory and “policing” agencies – all are part of a total safety process to reduce injuries and incidents in the workplace.
After all of the precautions, programs and processes that are in place and all of the training and education that takes place, no matter how good the program may be, people still get hurt.
Establishing “zero incidents” as a goal is wonderful, but as long as workers remain human, there is no foolproof measure that will ensure an incident will not occur. Whenever the human element is present, certain risks remain inherent.
Some actions are no doubt deliberate. An employee who sticks his hand in a machine while it is still energized to free up a jam usually is making a conscious decision to do so. If he turns the machine off and locks it out first, his production is affected, and it may also directly impact the production of others. Or perhaps feeling no production pressure at all, the employee believes that he can clear the jam in a matter of seconds versus the time and energy it would take him to shut down and do it right.
In these examples, the employee believes that the exposure to risk is less than the perceived benefit or the perceived punishment if production is halted to fix a “simple” problem. In either event, if the employee is injured, the employer may be placed in a position of negligence if the injury is serious enough.
Sometimes, however, even our safest, best workers get hurt. Reasons vary, but it could be that the person was not thinking as clearly or was not as focused as usual, and it all goes back to the human element. Below are six common causes of accidents. This list is certainly not inclusive, but it serves to remind managers and supervisors that in being human, all employees at every level handle pressures differently and uniquely. As a result, events that occur in each life create unique reactions.
Stress. Problems at work, family problems or other personal issues may hinder our ability to concentrate on the task at hand. The No. 1 cause of work-related stress is interpersonal relationships (problems with one or more co-workers or a supervisor, for example). The No. 1 cause of family-related stress is money (worries over an incoming bill, for example).
Fatigue. Fatigue results from lack of sleep, lack of “downtime” between heavy work or tasks, exposure to hot/humid environments, and medications causing drowsiness. The causes often are out of our direct control. When children become sick at night, for example, everyone feels the effects. If that sickness is prolonged, it doesn’t take but a few nights of minimal sleep to affect concentration or judgment at work.
Poor health. Lack of exercise, poor dietary habits, exposure to viruses or illnesses may contribute to the cause of an accident. Physical performance can be altered due to physical condition or diet. Coming to work ill not only increases co-workers’ exposure to illness, but also may reduce the ill person’s ability to perform tasks properly. Or it may increase the use of an unapproved shortcut to finish a task.
Exceeding limitations. Improper lifting, carrying a load that is too heavy or bulky, attempting to perform more tasks than time allows, attempting to perform more than one task at a time – all are examples of accident causes due to exceeding a person’s limitations. Recognizing those limitations allows the person to plan tasks safely. Pushing beyond those known limits creates a condition ripe for an injury while also exposing others to injury.
Attitude. Carelessness, apathy, anger or recklessness set up conditions for an accident. Examples of unsafe working conditions driven by attitude include choosing not to use personal protective equipment for a task; using an improper or inappropriate tool for the task; and not maintaining tools or work areas for other employees’ use. An attitude becomes dangerous when the person believes circumstances cannot be controlled.
Lack of training or supervision. Inadequate or improper task training, condoning improper use or failure to use personal protective equipment, and condoning unapproved or unauthorized “shortcuts” in performing tasks can also lead to accidents.
An effective training program can and does save lives, money, time and turnover. Whether it is training for introducing a new employee to the culture and job within the organization, refresher training on regulatory or procedural requirements or specific task training within a department, an effective program ensures compliance and profit.
Stay focused on effective training techniques and programs. Keep employees engaged in the training sessions; mix and match content, format and styles throughout the year; and create ongoing skill renewal or in-house competition that improves or enhances overall performance. Measure the effectiveness of the training through supervisors observing how jobs are actually performed and asking employees questions related to the topic or task.
Any one or a combination of the above is a major contributor to injuries in the workplace. An accident may affect individual performance in this manner or, as a result of his or her performance, it may cause a co-worker to have an accident.
On a given day, any of us can become distracted for any number of reasons. What each person does on the job, whether positive or negative, has an effect on everyone around him – including co-workers’ families. Each person is responsible and accountable for one another at work. We must help one another stay focused on the task at hand, with occasional reminders on how or when to do or use something related to that task. Together you will be able to recognize and prevent hazardous situations that may lead to an accident.
This can be as simple as a co-worker making a comment to someone about wearing the right type of personal protective equipment for a task. A supervisor can periodically make observations of people performing tasks with reminders to take the time to do the task correctly. This communicates to the employee that he is being observed and that the expectation is to do the job properly rather than using a shortcut.
Another good team effort involves reviewing the procedures of a group task together just prior to starting the task. This reinforces the order of the steps, the equipment needed to perform the steps, and clarifies each person’s role in completing the task. That five-minute review saves time, ensures everyone knows who is doing what, and ensures all necessary equipment is readily available before starting the job.
It comes down to individual and team performance. Employers expect employees to do the job right, training the employees to do so; employees expect the employer to support them in doing the job right by providing the right equipment and tools and a safe working environment. Each employee expects the other employee to do the job right and not expose each other to careless, reckless or distracting behavior. It is truly a team effort.